Source of book: Audiobook from the library
This book is part of out not-particularly-systematic exploration of the Newbery Award winners and honor books. Kira-Kira won the award in 2005. In addition, this book is part of my personal project as homeschool dad and aspiring decent human being to introduce my kids (and myself) to books written by non-white authors.
Cynthia Kadohata was born in the 1950s in Chicago. Because her father was of Japanese heritage, he was unjustly imprisoned in a concentration camp in Arizona during World War II. This, and her experience of racial prejudice, influenced her treatment of the American experience in her books.
Kira-Kira is her first childrens, or perhaps young adult novel.
To start with, let me note that this book is achingly sad. The central event is the death of the narrator’s older sister from cancer. A dying kid is not the easiest topic to address, clearly, no matter how well written the book is, it is rough. (I particularly speak as a parent here, in that the death of a child is an unimaginable horror - even though I have friends who have experienced it.) In addition, the book looks at other rather serious and unpleasant realities. Racial prejudice - particularly in the American South. Exploitation of workers. Trauma in general. These are heavy topics for a kids book, and make for a book which isn’t exactly “pleasant.”
That said, I have been thinking a lot about this book after listening to it on our most recent vacation. There are so many truly outstanding things about the work that make it a worthy Newbery winner - and a good choice to experience with kids.
First, last, and most important is the voice of the protagonist, Katie Takeshima, the middle child in the family. I think the highest praise I can use here is this: it was easy to forget that this book is fiction, because Katie feels so incredibly real. She narrates the book throughout, and starts with memories as a toddler, progressing as the book goes on to her middle school years. She is utterly believable and human, never lapsing into “angelic” territory, being “wiser than her years” as a stand in for her adult self, or (and this is a huge thing) having some epiphany which makes everything better. She is, at all times, a human child, feeling fully human emotions - and ambivalence, and responding to trauma in the way we all tend to: with a mix of healthy and unhealthy reactions.
In this sense, I think the cover blurbs and most of the online promotions rather gloss the point of the book. The title refers to a Japanese term for “glittering” or “shiny.” But the doomed Lynn means a deeper idea: the way that water, the stars, and human eyes shimmer and both reveal and conceal depths of meaning. This idea runs through the book, from Katie’s earliest memories to her determination to seek a positive future in the wake of devastation. In the blurbs, the impression is given that Katie takes this inspiration and is enabled to put her broken family back together. That’s not really the way it goes down. Katie and her parents all have to reconstruct their broken lives after the devastation of Lynn’s death. And Katie is as injured as anyone and has no magic that the others lack. Rather, they all have damage and yet a will to carry on.
There are some particular moments which stood out in this regard. First, while it is obvious that Katie worships Lynn, who is (I believe) 4 or 5 years older, Katie also struggles greatly with living in Lynn’s shadow. Lynn is the “genius,” outstanding in school, beautiful, so very kind to her younger siblings, and the most promising of the kids. Katie is so very ordinary by comparison, and this reality dominates her life.
The next moment is related: when Lynn becomes a teenager, Katie realizes that Lynn thinks of her as a “little kid,” not the equal friend that Katie believed she was. (And, to be fair, the way that the relationship worked before puberty.) This is where I believe the book is exceptionally realistic. There is no true epiphany or even reconciliation between Lynn and Katie. Their close relationship is never the same - even at the end. Life imposes changes, and our original nuclear family becomes secondary to our later bonds, whether friendship, marriage, or children. This particular transition was not entirely successful in my own family, and a lot of heartache has resulted from expectations that new spouses and children-in-law would become an extension of already dysfunctional family dynamics.
Also highly realistic is the denial of catharsis when it comes to Lynn’s illness and death. Lynn never becomes the Victorian “dying angel,” a blessing to all around her. Rather, she is angry and difficult - she is a teenager dying in an unfair twist of fate, and she isn’t happy about it. She deals with her pain like most of us do. Sometimes by withdrawal as we lack the emotional strength to do more than survive, sometimes by lashing out at whoever we can. There is a devastating scene near the end where Lynn and Katie - once the inseparable Takeshima sisters - tell each other they hate the other. There is no cute reconciliation. They both are exhausted, as are the parents, and life goes on. They do talk again, but Katie remains haunted by what went down, and has no chance to really fix what she said, because Lynn is gone. Again, thoroughly realistic - painfully so. And, mind you, this is in the context of sisters who genuinely DO love each other and are trying.
Like the children, the adults are human, flawed, and complex. There is a lot of nuance in this book, and Kadohata, despite telling the story from a particular point of view, shows empathy for the various characters and the way they are buffeted by circumstance.
There are other hard realities in this book. The Japanese-American kids (in the 1950s) are never really accepted into white Southern society. Lynn’s white friends abandon her as it becomes clear she is dying. (They don’t even bother to come to the funeral.) The older generation never really gets a chance to integrate - even as they resist cross-race friendship and the real risk and vulnerability it would require. Medical bills threaten to bankrupt the working poor. The abusive labor practices continue - although unionization is on the horizon. Workers are indeed expected to wear diapers because toilet breaks are not allowed. Hard work and cruelly long hours lead to subsistence, not security. (Ah, the good old days of capitalism…)
There are some more optimistic notes, however. Katie’s uncle, Katsuhisa, is a force of chaos and energy, who ends up helping Katie more than her own parents can. The relationship between Katie and Lynn is beautiful, even in its sad and troubling end. Katie does eventually make a real friend - a white girl who comes from poverty and deprivation herself and can love without judgment.
The writing itself is very good, evocative of the best in psychological perceptiveness, and artistic in its descriptions. Kadohata somehow made aching sadness beautiful in the way only true artists can.
One final thought: I hinted at this earlier, but I think the bravest part of the book is that Kadohata denies the very idea of “closure.” There is no true closure or catharsis in grief. This is true whether it is the loss of a person to death, the loss of a relationship, or even the loss of a community. (Such as my own losses of relationships and the loss of my faith community.) Life goes on. We carry on. But there is a hole which will never be filled. Katie (and her parents) will never be the same after Lynn’s death. And Kadohata makes that crystal clear. We don’t so much heal from trauma as we learn to compensate for it. Like a tree struck by lightning, we continue to live, but the scars remain, and our shape will never be symmetrical again. That’s life. And that’s being human. You can’t just make margaritas out of lemons. Kadohata gets this, and incorporates it into this book. This is not the voice of despair or depression - it is the voice of an optimistic realism. Even in tragedy, there is beauty. Indeed, beauty itself isn’t the lack of flaws, but, as Keats said, the presence of truth.
As I often do, I want to mention the audiobook. The narrator on our edition was Elaina Erika Davis, a television regular, and frequent audiobook narrator. (Perhaps the most famous was Memoirs of a Geisha.) She seems rather at home both with Japanese words and with Southern dialect - a fascinating combination that was definitely necessary in this book. She had to strike a delicate balance, as the book itself notes that Lynn and Katie end up talking with a Southern accent, but most of the narration isn’t in dialect. Thus, most is read “straight,” with the southern accent used only where dialect is used in the book.