I was not eager to start reading Of White Ashes by Constance Hays Matsumoto and Kent Matsumoto. It is the story of two Japanese Americans, Koji and Ruby, and includes the attack on Pearl Harbor, the World War II incarceration of Japanese Americans, and the struggles of the survivors of the Hiroshima atomic bomb.
The horrific excess of cruelty, injustices, suffering and pain that people inflict upon each another during war is not something I like to think about, much less read and write a review about. But at the end of my reading, I found myself unexpectedly elucidated, enlightened, and oddly hopeful for the nature of our species. It is a well written story that is engaging, historically accurate, believable and monumental.
Koji is a boy growing up in wartime Hiroshima and lives through the atomic bombing. Ruby is a girl of about same age growing up in Hawai’i who is incarcerated in Arkansas. We see them going through the universal good, bad, ugly, and sublime of youth.
It’s easy to relate to many of Koji and Ruby’s experiences of family dinners, school friends and enemies, adventures and angst, first love, first doubts, and dumb choices. It seems like kids are kids are kids always, anywhere, anytime — for awhile anyway.
Ruby’s pearl necklace, a graduation gift from her sister, appears at the beginning of Of White Ashes but it is clearly tied to the past. The pearl necklace also appears at the story’s conclusion clearly tied to the future.
That bears some reflection. A pearl necklace is made by an oyster, a living organism, encasing an exterior intrusion (grain of sand) with iridescence. Then a single pearl is selected and joined with other pearls to be strung together to form a beautiful necklace.
That ties into one of the central themes in the novel. The concept of shikataganai, which is the belief that hard times can’t be prevented and nothing can be done about them. Many cultures and orientations believe similarly and may stop there. But many Japanese and Japanese Americans cling to the philosophy of gaman: having the patience to endure through.
Shikataganai — the oyster cannot prevent the intrusion of sand into its inner realm, but then gaman — certain oysters envelope the sand with itself and transform it into a pearl.
Racism, injustice, wartime deaths and suffering are all formidable intrusions into our efforts for and dreams of wellbeing and prosperity.
When Koji is a boy and war swirls around Japan, his mother says to him:
“…Shikataganai, the emphasis, heavy emphasis on ‘kata’ seems to release her frustration. Koji, slip it [his U.S. citizenship papers] into one of your old socks, and hide it in your room. And remember, nothing goes on forever. We ‘gaman.’ Everything ends, and we endure the hard times with grace and strength.”
About this same time, Ruby’s father, who is a Buddhist priest on Kaua’i, makes a sumi-e brush painting right before he is arrested that says: “Endure with grace, change for the better, for beauty emerges from darkness.”
Of White Ashes poses several questions. What is loyalty? And to what or to whom are we to extend it to and why? How do we “endure the hard times with grace and strength?” How do we “endure with grace and change for the better?”
Koji and Ruby choose different paths in responding to these questions. Life brings each different circumstances. The war ends and they meet. For them, the past and present collide as they ponder the future.
What we’ve done in the past can be decaying, oozing poison into our lives.
Or, depending on how we remember and handle our past, it can be the promise we hold on to as we gain strength and press on toward brighter days. Koji and Ruby must choose to do that, or not.
What is the path for them?
And for us?
Kent and Constance Hays Matsumoto will be speaking about ‘Of White Ashes’ locally at Eagle Harbor Book Company on Bainbridge Island on Jan. 9, 2024 at 6:30 p.m. They will also appear at Island Books on Mercer Island on Jan. 10, 2024 at 6 p.m.