In brief: This is the story of Satomi, a Japanese-American girl sent to Manzanar camp during World War II and how her life is affected.
The good: So much emotion and tragedy.
The not-so-good: Start is a bit slow.
Why I chose it: Sent to me by Bloomsbury Sydney – thank you!
My rating: 8.5 out of 10
When I received my copy of A Girl Like You, I was excited about reading more about the experiences of Japanese-Americans being interned at Manzanar camp during World War II. I whet my appetite earlier this year reading a similarly-themed book (Garden of Stones by Sophie Littlefield).
A Girl Like You opens in Angelina, a small Californian town just before America’s entry into World War II. The main character Satomi Baker is half Japanese, half American and is not really sure where she fits into society. Is her place with the Japanese kids or with the Caucasians? Will she ever be classed as ‘normal’? Racial tension is already building in the town and after Satomi’s father Aaron joins the American Navy (only to be killed during the attack on Pearl Harbor); the family’s days in Angelina are numbered. Her mother, Tamura, is no longer welcome in town and Satomi stops attending school. Later, the pair learn through their neighbour that all the Japanese people are to be sent to a camp. It’s not negotiable, and they are limited in the amount of treasured belongings they can take with them.
The Manzanar camp is like nothing else the Bakers have ever experiences. There is virtually no privacy (none of the latrines have doors) and the walls between families in the barracks muffle none of the neighbours’ sounds. People must queue for everything – even for a shower or dinner in the mess hall.
Satomi finds it difficult to adjust, but eventually finds some interest working with the local doctor, but her heart belongs to the orphanage. It is here she makes a lifelong friend in the local doctor and another in the orphan Cora. Life inside the camp is difficult and anti-Japanese sentiment is rife on the outside. Can Satomi survive life in Manzanar and post-war America?
One of the things that amazed me about this book is that Maureen Lindley really doesn’t shy away from doing nasty things to her characters! Throughout the book, I really felt for Satomi as her life seemed to be one injustice after another. How much can one woman take in life – sorrow, mistreatment and grief combined? I think my response to Satomi’s fate also shows just how likeable she is as a character (even though some of the other characters find for bold and lacking respect). I rejoiced with Satomi when she found love and at other times, wanted to shake some sense into her for the stupid decisions she made!
I found the pre-Pearl Harbor part of A Girl Like You had a very slow pace. I understand that this part was necessary to establish the story and show the reader how Satomi fitted in (or didn’t). I didn’t find the plot overly gripping or interesting (the Satomi sneaking off with boys isn’t really repeated later in the book – what is it meant to signify? We know Satomi’s often told things ending with ‘…for a girl like you’ but she’s not like that). For me, the narrative pace improved dramatically when Tamura and Satomi were forced to leave Angelina for the camp. The plot kept up this pace for the rest of the book and I was enthralled, reading this emotional journey.
Another part of the book I enjoyed was that the story didn’t end when Satomi left Manzanar. It was fascinating to see her rebuild her life from nothing, see how she was accepted and who held on to their prejudices. I suppose a comparison with Gardens of Stones is inevitable, but I found A Girl Like You went much deeper into life at Manzanar and the spirit of those held there. It also went into much more detail for the post-World War II years. Both novels deal with incredible emotions and life changing journeys, but they are quite different in what happens to the main characters. I’d recommend reading both if you are interesting in reading about (fictional) life at Manzanar.
I’d love to read more of Satomi’s journey, but I think Lindley ended this book perfectly. Persevere past Pearl Harbor in this book and you will be rewarded with a sensitively rendered account of one girl’s journey.