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A story, intuited rather than heard, had germinated for years just in the periphery of his memory, and when it finally bloomed before him, it was as if it had always been there.
“Something to add to our discussion, Mr. Igawa?” the prof asked the gaping freshman.
“No,” he said. “Not really.”
Thus through a hakujin [white] stranger, David Toshio Igawa, like so many young Nikkei, first learned of “the whole thing.”
“The whole thing” is the experience of Japanese-American evacuation and internment during World War II, which Igawa/Ikeda’s father and grandparents endured, but which he was told little about. Like the fictional Igawa, Ikeda spent years researching and piecing together the story of this experience, which makes up the substance of Scarecrow.
More than 100,000 Japanese-Americans were uprooted from their homes on the West Coast in late 1941, suspected en masse of being an advance guard for a feared Japanese invasion after Pearl Harbor. No such subversive intentions were ever proved, but lack of evidence presents no obstacle to the campaign of nakedly racist hysteria. Few whites came forward to oppose the internment, but among the dissenting handful, Quakers were prominent. One was Herbert Nicholson, a Quaker missionary in prewar Japan, who tirelessly aided the imprisoned Nisei and demanded their release; he is something of a legend among surviving people of Japanese ancestry, or Nikkei. Other Quakers offered internees jobs and housing in the midwestern and eastern U.S., far from any potential invasion sites, where the government later decided to “distribute” released internees. Ikeda’s father wound up in Philadelphia with the Quakers’ help, and the novelist includes Herbert Nicholson in his story.
It is as part of this “distribution” that William Fujita, the novel’s protagonist, arrives in a small Massachusetts town in late 1944. Once a prosperous nurseryman in Pasadena, he has been hired out of the camps by a Quaker widow who tells him his job is to turn a hilltop she calls “Widow’s Peak” into a small farm. Save for his race, Fujita is every conservative’s model of all-American family values. But when he leaves the barbed wire of the camps, he has lost family, property, and hope. Ikeda takes his time unfolding the story of how Fujita comes to terms with his bitterness and makes a farm of Widow’s Peak. Scarecrow includes vivid and balanced sketches of Nikkei life in prewar California, which offered many opportunities despite the racism of the surrounding white culture.
Yet the heart of Ikeda’s tale lies beyond or beneath reported history. Scarecrow meditates on the combination of character and culture that makes Fujita and so many of his peers unwilling to talk about what they have been through. “Mukashi no hanashi,” they say: “It’s an old story, long ago.” More than 50 years later, it has become a story well worth understanding, as David Guterson’s PEN/ Faulkner Award–winning Snow Falling on Cedars reveals. What the Scarecrow Said enriches this literary recovery.