Sunday, July 28, 2013

Shining Through Darkness: kira-kira

Reflection on kira-kira by Cynthia Kadohata (New York: Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2006).

Early in kira-kira, Cynthia Kadohata's novel for young readers, the narrator's boisterous Uncle Katsuhisa shows up in Iowa driving a ramshackle truck to move his brother's family.  The narrator Katie hears her young mother wonder aloud if that truck will be able to carry their small family and few possessions all the way to Georgia.  Katie tells us,
My father hit his chest with his fist.  That's what he did whenever he wanted to say, Definitely!  He added, "He's my brother!" ...As my parents watched Uncle's truck, my father reached both of his arms around my mother, enveloping her.  He stood with her like that a lot, as if protecting her.  (10) 
The father hasn't "a doubt in the world" about his brother's truck, and Katie thinks, "Maybe he trusted Uncle Katsuhisa the way I trusted [my older sister] Lynn."  On the verge of the family's leap into a new life that will present unexpected hardships and loss, this little moment is packed like a trunk with things that will continue to generate light even in dark times. 

"Light that shines through darkness" is what the eponymous Japanese phrase means, we're told, like stars in the night sky, like the clarity of the deep blue ocean, and like eyes.  It's a good image for this moment of departure for Georgia.

As the father holds the mother, so Katie's childhood is also "enveloped" by protecting arms.  Her father, strong and gentle, will eventually be working close to twenty hours a day in a chicken processing plant, not just to support his family, but to save for a house and college for the girls. The mother, petite and brittle, will work an assembly line without bathroom breaks from darkness to mid-afternoon.  The uncle, who plays the part of clown and mischief maker, will step in when things go wrong.  And then, of course, there is the older sister, Lynn, idolized by Katie, who looks out for her little sister, right up to the day she dies.

When we read this passage, we've already picked up the hint that Lynn will die, because grown-up narrator Katie tells us on the second page how she has kept her sister's diary.  Because the death is not held back as some kind of surprise plot twist, then we feel the preciousness of something that cannot last whenever we see Lynn together with the family, sharing laughs or advice with her sister, dreaming of her future "on the ocean."  She becomes, herself, kira-kira, shining through this shadow of death.  

Something that we don't pick up in the scene with the truck is anything about the family's Japanese background.  The parents, we're told, are kibei, American-born, Japanese educated.  There wasn't much of a market for their Japanese grocery store in Iowa, hence the move to factory work in Georgia. They eat some Japanese foods.  We figure out quickly that the Japanese community in Georgia is isolated by indifference or outright hostility, and the girls will have trouble making friends.  Later, a few white people will go out of their ways to assist the family -- a laundress Mrs. Kilgore and her daughter "Silly" (107), a handsome man Hank Garvin who helps when Katie's little brother Sam is caught in a steel trap (153).    But, while prejudice fences the family in, the story is mostly about what takes place inside the fence.  The girl's memories of childhood are not weighted down with messages about culture and racism.

In the passage about the truck, that word "enveloped" is in one way an odd choice, because Katie's language is usually so child-like, the sentences rolling by in that plain pattern of Subject - verb - complement, giving the book a feel of something a clever fifth-grader might write.  Sometimes, she interrupts herself with a cute little list of things.  There's a list of what the girls missed from life in Iowa, ending with "My parents" (41), and a list of sounds in the night when she takes a break from Lynn's sickroom (198). 

Kadohata uses the child-like style to give us an adult's long-view through the eyes of a child who doesn't understand yet what's happening.  The effect can be funny, as when Katie listens at her parents' closed bedroom door and concludes that making babies takes a lot of effort (70).   Then, there are times when the grown-ups in her life lash out in ways that don't make sense to her, because she doesn't understand that adults feel scared, lonely, or frustrated, too, as when her father smashes the windows of the Cadillac belonging to the factory's owner Mr. Lyndon (209).

Because I'm a teacher reading the book that my school assigns to my students for summer reading, I enjoyed Katie's thoughts about stories.  She enjoys stories.  She sometimes interrupts the action to tell us stories that seem to have no relation to her, such as a local legend about the ghost of a girl who looks for her parents in the swamp.  But teachers' questions about themes puzzle her and take the fun out of the stories for her.  When little brother Sam is caught in a steel trap, and big sister Lynn collapses from exhaustion trying to carry him out of the woods, their survival may depend on Katie's finding help right away.  Sitting in the front seat of the truck that drives to the rescue that she thinks,
I thought of all those stories I had to read for school and the questions the teachers always asked.  What is the theme?  What does the story mean?  Why did the characters act in a certain way.  We whizzed by the pretty houses.  It seemed that at this moment I was inside a story.  This was the story of my life, and I did not know what any of it meant.  Despite all that was terrible about that day,  I found myself exhilarated by our speed, by the sheer adventure of the moment... (153)

Near the end, Katie feels that she must say something to convey some meaning for her sister Lynn's life.  It's not something that she can put in words; she can only tell the story. 

Or, to put it another way:  The value of Lynn's life shines through the incidents, the way light can penetrate the darkness of the ocean:  kira-kira

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