Saturday, December 20, 2014

Red Berries White Clouds Blue Sky by Sandra Dallas

In Red Berries White Clouds Blue Sky, author Sandra Dallas tackles the issue of the Japanese internment during the Second World War with sensitivity for younger readers. This novel is based off her successful adult novel, Tallgrass which tells the story of a family living near the fictional internment camp, Tallgrass, that is the focus in Red Berries.


It is 1942 and war has been raging across Europe for three years. Tomi Itano lives in California with her Mom and Pop, her older brother, Roy, and her younger brother, Hiro.  The previous December, December 7, 1941, the American Navy at Pearl Harbor was bombed and within hours, President Roosevelt declared war on the Empire of Japan. While everyone is gearing up for the war effort, life seems to be going on for the Itano's who rent a farm from Mr. Lawrence. However, one day when they go into town, Tomi and Hiro are asked to leave the grocery store. Tapped onto the front window is a sign that says "No Japs" and Mr. Akron asks them to leave because they are Japanese. Shocked Tomi leads Hiro outside.

Tomi knows they are American citizens because they were born in America. Tomi and Hiro's grandparents Jiji and Baba still live in Japan, but their parents Osamu (Sam) and Sumiko, came from Japan and are Issei or first generation Americans. According to the law, they cannot become American citizens and cannot own land. But Tomi and Hiro having been born in America are Nisei or second-generation Americans. Tomi's father grows strawberries on the land that they rent from Mr. Lawrence and whose daughter, Martha is Tomi's best friend.

One day they arrive at home to find Mr. Lawrence at their house with Tomi's father and three men. One man questions both Sam Itano and Mr. Lawrence as to why Sam purchased so much fertilizer and gasoline, believing that he is giving these materials to Japanese submarines off the California coast. A second man finds Sam's Japanese newspaper and letters written in Japanese. They also question Sam about his radio. Tomi and Hiro watch as their father is handcuffed and taken away by the FBI to prison. When this happens, Mr. Lawrence is furious and tells Sam he will get him a good lawyer, while Tomi and Hiro race out to the strawberry fields to tell their mom. Mom explains to Tomi and Hiro that because of the war with Japan, many Americans believe that the Japanese living in America will help Japan to invade.

Soon the Itano's find their lives drastically changed; Roy who is part of a jazz ensemble is told by a woman he's not welcome and Tomi is forced to quit the Girl Scouts when she is told by Mrs. Malkin who is hosting the meeting, that they don't allow "Japs" in their house. Tomi's father is sent to New Mexico and the government asks all people of Japanese heritage to move away from the coast to Colorado, Kansas and Montana. Tomi's mom refuses but when President Roosevelt signs Executive Order 9066, they are forced to move to one of ten relocation camps. In April, they are given two weeks to pack only what will fit into a suitcase. Mrs. Lawrence tells Sumiko that she will store her silver and china until she returns. Tomi and Hiro are saddened to leave their home and the strawberry farm but Tomi tries to keep positive.

Mr. Lawrence drives them to the church in town where along with many other Japanese families they board buses that take them to the Santa Anita racetrack. Since the barracks for the Japanese-Americans are not yet finished, Tomi and her family spend four months living in a horse stall at the racetrack.Finally at the end of August,the Itanos along with the other Japanese internees, move to a "relocation" camp called Tallgrass in Ellis, Colorado. At first Tomi is excited, believing that in Colorado she will find blue sky, tall pines, large mountains and snow. Instead what the Itano family find is a large camp set in the middle of the dusty, brown prairie. The unfinished barracks are surrounded by barbed wire and prison guard towers. As Tomi tries to adjust to life in the camp, her mother gradually takes over as head of the household to make a little home out of their small shack for their family. Tomi and Hiro attend the camp school where Tomi is an excellent student. Eventually Tomi's Pop is sent to the camp but he has changed - once a vigorous man, he now uses a cane and has grey hair. But worse than that, her once happy and proud Pop is deeply bitter and hates America. Seeing her father suffer so much changes Tomi and she becomes angry and begins to fail in school. Tomi's struggles leads her mother to ask her to for help with her father to recover from the anger that is poisoning his life and the lives of those around him. But can Tomi overcome her own anger and find a way to prove to her fellow Americans that the Japanese Americans are loyal citizens?


Red Berries White Clouds Blue Sky is a short novel for ages 8 to 12 year olds, which focuses on a troubling area of American history that Canada too shares - the imprisonment during wartime of certain ethnic groups deemed risky to national security. During the Second World War, in Canada,  people of Japanese, Italian and Ukrainian heritage were sent to internment camps for for the duration of the war. These people had families, jobs and owned businesses. Virtually all were productive citizens who were very loyal to their new countries, grateful for the opportunities they had to make their lives better. It is this aspect and the grave injustice done to them by their adopted country's government and citizens that Dallas portrays through the character of Pop in the novel. His bitterness over his treatment and betrayal by his adopted country is the one aspect that is keenly demonstrated.

Unfortunately the author's portrayal of the experience of being rounded up, relocated and living in the internment camps is mostly diminished due to Tomi's muted narrative. Dallas creates some excellent situations with good dialogue to portray certain aspects of the internment, such as when the FBI make ridiculous assumptions about Pop's Japanese newspaper and his use of the radio, and when his basic human rights were violated - he had no recourse to a lawyer and he was never charged with any crime. In these situations as the beginning of the novel, Tomi and her brother and Mr. Lawrence try to reason with the authorities to no avail. But mostly Tomi tells rather than the reader experiencing the events - as in their struggle to adjust to life in the camps and how the internment affected family life. Other issues are briefly mentioned in Tomi's narrative such as her older brother Roy joining the all Japanese 442nd Regiment, which ended up becoming the most decorated unit of its size in US history.

Red Berries White Clouds Blue Sky is definitely a simplistic treatment of the Japanese internment with a happy ending. The Itano's were able to return to their farm in Sandra Dallas's story, but for many Japanese-Americans, their experience was one of loss and disruption. More often than not,  they lost everything and their lives afterwards were severely impacted by the internment.  Nevertheless, this is a good starting point for children to learn more about this important part of World War II history, the meaning of tolerance, the effect of war on people, the use of propaganda in inciting racism and the violation of human rights.

It should be noted that this children's novel is an extension of an earlier novel, Tallgrass, which Dallas wrote for adults on the Japanese internment experience.

For more information:

Canadian readers are directed to the following websites:
The Internment of Japanese Canadians during World War II

Japanese Canadian Internment During World War II
This website mentions that Japanese Canadians were not protected by a Bill of Rights as were Japanese Americans and many lost all their possessions which were sold off by the Canadian government for a fraction of what they were worth. They also had to cover the cost of living in the internment camps. 

This pdf file contains an overview of the American experience and provides many links.

The PBS documentary, Children of the Camps is also a website with numerous resources.

You can also watch this brief video about the Manzanar which was a Japanese internment camp in the California desert.

Book Details:

Red Berries White Clouds Blue Sky by Sandra Dallas
Ann Arbor, Michigan: Sleeping Bear Press 2014
237 pp.

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