“Just you wait,” Mr. Watanabe said. “Making us carry around identification cards as if we aren’t even citizens is just the beginning. They’ll accuse us of aiding the enemy and take away our rights as quick as you can blink.”
Kenny was confused. What did Mr. Watanabe mean by rights? And why–how–would the government take them away?
“What are you afraid of, Min?” someone asked. “They’ll take away our passports? Or lock us up?”
Several people laughed.
“That can’t happen in Canada. It’s a democracy, remember?” a woman said. (p. 70)
Ellen Schwartz’s Heart of a Champion, a Red Cedar Fiction nominee 2017/2018, centres on Kenji, called Kenny, his family, and his communities. Kenny Sakamoto has just turned nine, old enough to try out for the Shigun (Clovers) junior baseball team, if only he is allowed. Maybe with the help of his brother Mickey, already a local hero and the Rookie of the Year (1941) of the outstanding Asahi* baseball team, Kenny could learn enough to persuade his parents, and to not disgrace himself at the tryouts. It’s a slim chance, but Kenny is desperate for the chance to wear a baseball uniform.
The opening chapters are devoted to Kenny’s everyday life in Vancouver: his love for the Asahis; his admiration for and envy of Mickey; his frustration with his little sister, Sally; his best friendship with Susana, whose family moved next door when he was four; his dislike of classmate Tak. The first chapters are family life, the sort of comfortable home background you just want to bask in.
Unfortunately, Pearl Harbour happens, and the Canadian government decides that all Canadians of Japanese ancestry are not citizens but enemy aliens. Kenny’s father is forced to surrender his photography equipment, thus losing his livelihood. Identification cards must be carried, subject to inspection–and if you are Japanese-looking in public, you will be stopped and inspected. Restriction follows restriction. Kenny’s dad and the other Japanese men are sent to work camps. Finally the whole family is forced out of their home to a rough camp near New Denver, on Slocan Lake in BC’s interior.
Here one of the many small clevernesses of the text sneak in. Susana and her family are Jewish and emigrated from Germany. In an early chapter, a white shopkeeper insults Kenny and Mickey using a racial slur; later, one of Susana and Kenny’s classmates does the same to her. When the Sakamotos lose their business, Uncle Jake (Susana’s father) recognizes that the prejudice and active, legally sanctioned, violent hostility that he and his family had fled in Germany is happening in Canada to his friends.
Kenny’s family–bereft of Kenny’s dad, their home, most of their belongings, and the most basic amenities of life– does not adapt well. I wasn’t completely sold on Mickey’s transformation from young hero to miserable, inactive boy, but all the more chance for Kenny to shine, eh? And he does.
There is a list of books (fiction and non-fiction) and websites at the end of the book, for readers who want more about the Asahis or about Japanese Canadian children’s internment experiences.
*The Asahis, if you want the abbreviated version, were a Vancouver-based baseball club. comprised of Japanese boys and men. The Asahis won their first title in 1919 (Vancouver International League championship) and played so consistently well that, despite virulent racism, had many white fans up until they were disbanded in 1942, because all the members had been sent to internment camps. The team’s athletic achievements were remarkable–they won five consecutive Pacific Northwest League championships, 1937-1941– more, they were a source of pride for the Japanese Canadian community in Vancouver, who faced daily indignities and institutional discrimination (including disenfranchisement and exclusion from the armed forces).