For all the atrocities of foreign wars that take place on the front lines and in the nations where the battles are being fought, there are often atrocities that happen back home; atrocities that get swept under the rug of history or dismissed as unimportant in the larger scheme of things. One such atrocity that is coming to light more in recent years—thanks in part to recent political moves that echo the problematic themes of this atrocity—is the internment of people of Japanese descent during World War II. Until reading Leslie Shimotakahara’s recent novel, After the Bloom which is in part inspired by her own family’s history in the American internment camps, I had no idea that camps like that were established in parts of Canada too. What her novel brings to life so importantly is that these camps had lasting effects at all levels—the individual, the family, and the community.
Rita knew her mother, Lily, had spent time during the war in an internment camp in California but since her mother never really spoke about it, Rita knows very little about that period of her mother’s life. It’s clear that it might be linked to the ways her mother can become ‘confused’ but Rita has more pressing things to worry about in the wake of her recent divorce and subsequent move. That is, until her mother goes missing. The police investigate but with no evidence of foul play, there isn’t much they can do. Rita takes it upon herself to look into why her mother might have left and where she might have gone. The more questions she asks, the more the answers seem to center around an incident that happened at the internment camp.
Narratively, the novel dances back and forth in time with chapters following Rita and her search in the 1984 and chapters following Lily’s experiences at the internment camp during the war. For the most part, the Lily chapters help provide deeper insight into what Rita is learning as she delves into her mother’s life for clues about where she disappeared to, but the structure also helps to add some drama to revelations Rita won’t have until later in the book—revelations that readers can probably figure out through getting to know Lily’s character in the past. While this can feel like false build-up—especially when the truth comes out later and the impact of the truth on Rita isn’t as sharp as expected—what it really ends up showing is how disconnected Rita is from her mother. Lily is not as scatterbrained or ridiculous as Rita’s sections of the novel would lead the reader to believe. There are moments of insight where Rita is able to acknowledge that some of her lack of knowledge is because she’s afraid to know or doesn’t want to know certain truths and that it isn’t just that her mother refused to talk about things or lied to her. This novel shows how much the parent/child relationship is a two-way street once the child is a full-fledged adult.
While the core plot of the novel ends up being very much a family drama, the background of the internment camps and their legacy resonates strongly and overshadows that central narrative in several places. I frequently had to remind myself that Rita’s storyline was taking place in the 80s and not the present day because so many of the issues faced by the Japanese Canadian community in the novel—especially their Redress Movement—is still a key issue for the many mistreated minority groups in the United States today (most notably it made me think of George Takei and how outspoken he has become about his time in internment camps growing up). This novel did a fantastic job of making sure the story was about the characters who experienced the camps rather than reducing them to just those experiences or the story to just the camps themselves. It stayed a story about people and a complex community that survived, though it didn’t emerge resembling the community that it had been when it went in.
After the Bloom by Leslie Shimotakahara will be available in all formats on May 9, 2017 (some formats are available now).