The harrowing scene of one child being chosen by her mother while the young girlís brother is left to be raised by someone else typifies the slow death of a Japanese-American family structure in Rahna Reiko Rizzutoís 1999 American Book Award-winning novel Why She Left Us.
Rizzuto tells the story in a non-chronological matter, with each chapter covering a different event over a nearly seventy-year time span. But the painful fissure caused by the choice by an unmarried mother, Emi, to raise only her youngest child, a daughter named Mariko, and not her eldest, Eric, stands as the central web from which the other chapters, that occur both and after the event, spring.
We see many incarnations of Emi throughout the book: a curious young child uncertain of what to make of her motherís shockingly painful birthing experience upon the arrival of her younger brother; a confident yet aloof woman-child; a disgraced mother-to-be in a Japanese internment camp; and an old woman content to let the events of her old life lie undisturbed as she settles in to her senior years.
This reluctance to speak of her past is what drives Mariko to try to discover her motherís history on her own. Spurred by the unexpected revelation that a rarely-seen cousin is actually her brother, Mariko begins a quest for answers.
We as readers find out far more than she can thanks to the time slips in the novel. We see pivotal events in the lives of members of Marikoís now-distant family, including her mother, Eric, her Uncle Jack (that baby born so violently into the world), Emiís other brother, the war hero Will and the parents of Emi and her brothers.
In a curious choice by the author, it is through the eyes of one of these grandparents of Mariko, the woman known as Kaori, that several chapters are told. Whereas most of the chapters focus on a particular character with third-person narration, these sections feature a first-person account of several important moments by Kaori as though she were relating memories to Mariko, although these conversations clearly couldnít have taken place given the chronology of the novel. As odd as it seems that this private, seemingly unknowable person is the only character with whom we feel this intimacy, the chapters do help to reveal the inner workings of this complex family.
It is a family clearly on a collision course between cultures. One of the earliest views we have of the Okada clan is on a farm they own as newcomers to America. In a chapter entitled "The Harvest," Kaori tells of an incident with her oldest son, Will. The overzealous boy decides to skip school to help out on the farm but his father finds out in a way that causes him to lose face - the distinctly Asian mindset of being humiliated in front of others (a concept illustrated perfectly in another part of the novel when a woman in a far-too public bathroom in the internment camp wears a bag over her head in shame at her public nudity). The punishment, a vicious beating, is severe but when Kaori tries to interfere on her sonís behalf she is surprised by the boyís reaction:
Will was hanging in the same place on the saddle rack. He hadnít risen or tried to dress. I wanted him to go and didnít understand why he wouldnít. My whole purpose had been to give him the chance to get out.
Will understood what his actions had done to his father and the whipping he receives is really an indoctrination into the expected role of manhood in the Japanese way. Indeed one day he will be the head of the family and will mete out punishment to his disgraced sister with a ferocity that rivals what he suffered years before.
"Mama, please go back."
But the reality of being Japanese-Americans begins to take its toll on the family with the onset of World War II. Once wealthy landowners, the Okadas are forced to scrape by due to rising anti-Japanese sentiment. And for a unit whose very ideals embrace devotion to one another at the expense of all else, the fact that they must send the young Emi away to work elsewhere is a wound from which they canít recover. And, ironically, the cancer that begins to destroy the family is the beginning of a life - Emiís illegitimate pregnancy that results in Ericís birth. Emi is content in leaving this child with another family, but Kaori, still clutching closely to the tradition of having the family together, brings the child back.
Eric grows up, not surprisingly, as a problem child and becomes a street tough, serving stints in prison for his petty crimes. Abandoned, as he sees it, by his real family, Eric embraces being American at the expense of his Japanese roots. It is only at his lowest moment that he is saved and becomes the head of his own family, a small group that even includes his Uncle Jack.
From his very birth, an event that almost killed his mother and forged a wedge of shame between her and Emi, Jack is painted as a rather ineffectual male. Using physical infirmities, such as asthma later in his life and a limp from an injury suffered in the war (a scene that shines as one of the most riveting chapters in the novel), Rizzuto casts a pallor of impotency about him. Indeed, Jack finds himself both unable to lead his birth family after the death of his more capable brother in the same war and unable to start his own family, as his only marriage ends in divorce. Resigning himself to being a member of Ericís family later on in life, it is as though Jack passes on the unbearable mantle of legitimacy to the nephew who never had it.
Compared to the existence of her forcibly-estranged brother, Marikoís childhood is one of true legitimacy, although the veneer threatens to crumble early on. A childish exploration into some personal effects gives the young girl pause as she realizes what the information on her birth certificate means. But any thought of confronting her mother with the surface knowledge of her brotherís existence is repressed by Marikoís fear of being similarly abandoned, a terror that surfaces in the young girlís thoughts when being scolded by Emi for getting into trouble at school.
"I canít believe you did that. If you ever - "
Both of Emiís children commit acts that can be seen as subverting the Japanese family structure. As a youth Eric relaxes his guardianship over his grandfather, who is now suffering from dementia, and allows him to wander off with tragic consequences. Meanwhile Mariko marries her first husband but then realizes her mistake and has an abortion rather than bear his child, mirroring the life of her mother, who married and raised only the product of her second pregnancy.
Donít say it, Mari begs in her head. Take away my supper. Make me hang the laundry, fold it, iron it. Make the beds for a year.
Just keep me.
In both cases, the death of a real or potential relative is a symbolic violation of the tight-knit but rigid concept of family against which their mother rebelled. Emiís choice was one that, even though brother and sister finally do reunite years later, has already irrevocably destroyed the Japanese tradition in which she grew up. To underscore the theme, Rizzuto never does tell us who the father is, why Mari was the preferred child or, indeed, in what would be the thinking of the Okada family, "why she left us."