Sophie and the Rising Sun is a unique bent on the event of Pearl Harbor. The story takes place in the small town of Salty Creek, Georgia, and focuses on two persons. Sophie is a middle-aged spinster who lived out her early adulthood taking care of her aging mother and two elderly aunts. She had lost the love of her life to WWI, and after that, she focused on her family, accepting that her fate would be that of a spinster. Mr. Oto is a Japanese-American man who, in his middle-aged life, finds himself living in Georgia and working for Miss Anne, who also happened to be Sophie’s oldest friend. This novel is the story of these two individuals and the unusual circumstances that brought them together.
There are various voices in the telling of this tale, but namely it is Miss Anne who recollects the stories of Sophie and Mr. Oto, talking in the past and remembering two people who at one time were very dear to her heart. There are stories of Sophie as a young girl who was not allowed to play with the colored children because it was simply not done. Sophie lost a good part of her childhood and a best friend when her mother forbade her to associate herself with these dark-skinned children. One may picture a somber child who was taught how to be a proper Southern lady, very polite and always doing what was expected. There is a rebellious streak in Sophie, but it is tempered by her mother’s strict rules. It isn’t until Sophie is much older and meets the mysterious Mr. Oto that Sophie’s true nature comes to light.
Mr. Oto’s story is told from his point of view but in the third person, so that it appears that the reader is watching Mr. Oto from afar as he goes about his daily business. This part of the narration oftentimes takes the reader into his thoughts, allowing one to slowly get to know what makes him tick. Through this part of the narrative, one learns how he arrived in Georgia and also finds out a little bit about his upbringing. His story takes longer to tell, which is appropriate to his character as Mr. Oto is a very private man and does not tell his life story to anyone, including his employer, for quite a while. No one, including Miss Anne, wants to pry into his life, either. It may not be out of respect that no one tries to find out more about him, but more likely out of fear of the unknown. No one knows what to make of this strange-looking man with the slanted eyes and the dark skin who appears in town one day, labeling him with the black citizens of town, most of whom take on jobs such as cleaning and cooking. Mr. Oto eventually becomes Miss Anne’s gardener and groundskeeper, a job that the townspeople accept since what else could he do? No one even knows whether he can speak English, and everyone thinks he is Chinese.
Then comes Pearl Harbor, and life for everyone in the States changes. As for Mr. Oto, the fact that he is Japanese is very significant, and by this time, he and Sophie have become friends of sorts, she being the only one who is aware of his ethnicity. When Miss Anne finds out that he is Japanese (for she, too, has thought all along that he was Chinese, not one of those “Japs”), she panics and tries to find a way to save his life.
This was a book for which I really had no expectations; in fact, I had no idea that it would be centered on WWII, Pearl Harbor, and the star-crossed love between two people whose lot in life was to live a solitary existence. I was pleasantly surprised. The courtship between Mr. Oto and Sophie is one of the highlights of this story, with scenes of the two of them sitting on the beach painting and enjoying each other’s company being the most delightful. Author Augusta Trobaugh does a great job capturing the feel of the era, as well as a feel for life in a segregated small town such as Salty Creek before WWII. The racial differences are also very inherent between the three groups of residents in the town of Salty Creek: the Whites who own the town, the Blacks who work in it, and those like Mr. Oto who don’t quite fit in anywhere.
In Sophie and the Rising Sun, Trobaugh shows her talent for writing with such delicate prose a story that only she could tell. She well illustrates Mr. Oto’s childhood and his culture, using scenes that apropos for this character to depict exactly what life is like for this man, a man who displaced in a part of the country where he has no friends, no family, and lives a solitary and lonely life. She also does a great job with the character of Sophie, who is quite similar to Mr. Oto and seems to share many of his personality traits. It is wonderful to see these two people, who by all rights would never have met under usual circumstances, strike up a friendship that eventually turns into love. This reviewer highly recommends Sophie and the Rising Sun and is very eager to read her other novels.