When we meet Piper Davis, the narrator of the book, her older brother Hank has just volunteered for the U.S. Navy. It’s a difficult sacrifice for Piper, who adores Hank. She writes letters regularly to him to send family news and ask his advice, sometimes in code. Yet Piper finds herself making a more complex sacrifice when the Japanese American community is evacuated to Minidoka and Piper’s preacher father (based on real-life Seattle pastor Emory Andrews) decides to move to Idaho in order to minister to his congregation. As part of Scholastic’s Dear America series, this novel for readers ages 9-12 is told in a series of diary-style entries, concluding with an epilogue and a historical note (including photographs and a recipe). “Fences” begins a couple of months before Pearl Harbor and ends two years later.
For young readers, especially young Seattle-area readers, there is much to appreciate about Larsen’s rendering of Seattle during World War II and of her feisty narrator. Larsen includes many references to Seattle landmarks (Green Lake, Ray’s Boathouse, Higo in Japantown). Piper is a likeable character, one who struggles understandably in the first half of the book with the high standards of being a “preacher’s kid” with the trappings of adolescence: wearing lipstick, meeting first loves, and attending social activities. She also struggles with the decisions her father makes, which at times come at the cost of parenting his own daughter. Larsen’s historical note after the epilogue provides useful educational information, and the pictures convey valuable context about Pearl Harbor, victory gardens, anti-Japanese sentiment, and life at Minidoka itself. Larsen’s extensive and nuanced historical research presents itself in many ways, from a refutation of the arguments of those in favor of incarceration (best exemplified by a letter from Hank), to lingering descriptions of the omnipresent dust and the sparse living conditions at Minidoka, to a discussion of the Nisei volunteers of the 442nd. One of the most intriguing threads of Piper’s development, which might have been developed more fully, is her exploration of documentary work which leads her to the work of photographer Margaret Bourke-White. Though the book leaves off when one of the Nisei characters leaves for his stint in the 442nd, the epilogue seems to wrap up many threads (particularly that of Piper’s older brother) a bit too neatly.
For readers of this publication, especially those who are Japanese American, the decision to focus on a White protagonist (even a family of White allies to Japanese Americans) in telling this piece of Japanese American history may be disappointing. According to its website, scholastic’s Dear America series is intended to recreate history “from a diverse and historical perspective.” Given the subject matter, the book could have been the first opportunity in the popular Dear America series to feature an Asian American protagonist. Nevertheless, it’s significant that Larsen’s historical research and appealing protagonist will introduce many new readers to this crucial chapter of American history.