David “Mas” Matsumoto, author of Epitaph for a Peach, Harvest Son, Changing Season, has yet another true story to share, this time a family secret so unspeakable that it remained buried for over 60 years.
Secret Harvests begins with receiving a phone call from a funeral home searching for the next of kin of a person who Matsumoto long believed dead. The news, however, is that his aunt is alive, but near death. Thus begins this story, which is not a conventional mystery to be solved, but a tale of his family’s struggles, and how the roles of poverty, world events, and being “not American enough” can force difficult choices for an immigrant family.
Shizuko was born a healthy and dearly loved child in 1919, and remained so until childhood meningitis stole her brain’s development at age five. Treatments were coming into existence then, but for a poor immigrant farm family, they were impossibly out of reach and Shizuko suffered permanent damage. Her parents, Matsumoto’s grandparents, do all they can for Shizuko into her 20s, but the bombing of Pearl Harbor forces the most dire choice of all.
Shizuko is spared the imprisonment that impacted 120,000 Japanese Americans, but she is institutionalized and becomes a ward of the state. The memory of her is buried and forgotten. Although Shizuko is at the center, Secret Harvest is the story of the entire clan, as her existence can only be understood in the context of family and history.
There are far too many gaps in Shizuko’s history for a conventional account. Because of her shifting between care facilities and poorly kept records, the full truth will never be known. Besides, Matsumoto has the writer’s nonfiction courage not to invent scenarios and allows some mysteries to remain ghosts.
However rich the early history of the family is in Secret Harvests, the richest rewards are found in the accounts of Shizuko’s caretakers at the end of her life. These underappreciated and underpaid workers have an accepting attitude of everything that comes their way, and their low place in society parallels that of Shizuko’s family of days past. Common ground connects them.
Although Shizuko’s direct connection with her family was brutally severed with the outbreak of WWII, new threads were sewn, even before her biological family rediscovers her decades later, thanks to those caregivers. The family that Shizuko inherits in those institutions proves to be patient, intimate, and understanding.
In Secret Harvest, Matsumoto again probes what the eyes cannot see, weaving a narrative path full of reflection and using common words in uncommon ways, neither for effect or for showiness, but for the sake of truth. His writing penetrates the depth and complexity of the human experience and its mysteries, simultaneously utilizing language to both magnify past pain and to provide healing. There is genuine gentleness in his words.
Although there is sadness and even tragedy in Shizuko’s story, the author shows readers the light through the quirky inspiration she brought to the world. In having the farmer’s resilience and courage to face nature’s recurring calamities, Matsumoto is able to see Shizuko’s gifts. Instead of obsessing over what could or should have been, he has the wisdom to accept what is and to relish the good in it.
In the end, hope remains, as Matsumoto reminds us that the better angels of humanity often rest in the hearts of those marginalized and unseen, bringing forth the bounty of secret harvests.