Love, Survival and Redemption

After the Bloom by Leslie Shimotakahara (Book Review)

Dundurn Press, Toronto, 324 pages, $21.99 paperback / $9.99 ebook here

Part family history, part mystery, After the Bloom is more than the story of a daughter’s attempt to look for her missing mother. The publisher’s back cover note calls it “epic”. That is not an exaggeration.
The story begins in 1984. Rita has just moved home and is coping with her recent separation from her husband when she was informed that her mother had gone missing from her home in Toronto. Rita’s search for her mother leads her to unravel Lily’s dark past in an internment camp for Japanese in California during the Second World War.
The narrative flashes back to 1943. Young Lily and her family are rounded up with other Japanese in an internment camp in the desert of California. The desert is hot and dry, and the pace of the story is reminiscent of the slow and long day the inhabitants would feel out there. Lily’s entrance was dramatic, and Kaz’s appearance brought on the tension. A double narrative line then develops between Rita’s search and Lily’s experience in the camp.
Lily falls in love with Kaz, and gets entangled in camp politics and the extreme tension between the rioters and camp supporters.
Shimotakahara writes with refined sensitivity about the fragility of human nature, and how such vulnerability can transform into strength in the name of love. Her characters are flawed with human weaknesses. They come across as real: they feel, they think and they act. They draw the readers into their worlds, sharing their anguish and pains.
Both the downtown Toronto and the desert camp landscape are depicted vividly, filtered by Shimotakahara’s keen observation, vivid imagination and strong narrative. The fictional name of Matanzas camp bears close resemblance to the actual Manzanar camp, where a riot took place, as in the novel. Credit must be given to her artful blend of research material and personal experience.
This is a story about human survival and redemption. History has its verdict on Japan’s role in the Second World War. Notwithstanding, the treatment given to the innocent Japanese born and living in North America at the time is also an ignominious page of history not to be denied. Imagine being given the choice of internment camp or repatriation to Japan, a country unknown to them, the language of which they did not speak.
A fourth-generation immigrant Japanese, Shimotakahara seems to be exploring the Japanese psyche, if this can so called, for herself. I share her journey through her lyrical prose about the social poise expected of Japanese women, the stringent rules of ikebana and the magic of Japanese folklore. Yet beneath the veneer of stoicism, her characters are frustrated, if not angry, and they need an outlet.
The author is not making a political treatise, but a plea for respect for humanity as her characters seek reconciliation and resolution with their past. When I finished the book, I was convinced that in the bigger world, it’s also time to move on to a more hopeful future after we have acknowledged the occurrence of past events.
I strongly recommend this book to readers with an interest in historical fiction, or a curiosity into the complexity of human nature and relationships. Any reader with an appreciation for literary prose will not be disappointed.

(A version of this review has appeared in the issue of Ottawa Review of Books https://www.ottawareviewofbooks.com/single-post/2017/09/04/After-The-Bloom-by-Leslie-Shimotakaharaand in the blog Quick Brown Fox http://quick-brown-fox-canada.blogspot.com/2017/10/after-bloom-by-leslie-shimotakahara.html)

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I Grow Old, I Grow Old…

“I grow old, I grow old, but I shall not wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled,” if T. S. Eliot will forgive the reference.
At my last checkup, my family doctor looked at my height measurement and said, “I think you are shorter than two years ago.”
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“I kind of noticed that, too,” I replied. “The other day my trousers seemed long and I had to take the bottoms up afterward. It would be awkward to roll them up.”
My doctor did not seem to recognize my poetic reference and, without smiling, went on to suggest a bone density scan and the inclusion of glucosamine supplement in my diet. For my part, I was eager to reassure her that I was keeping up with my weight training and I was fine with following her advice. Not a big deal.
I recently read Globe and Mail feature writer Ian Brown’s exposition of his 60th year in Sixty: A Diary of My Sixty-First Year and it upset me. His self-effacing entries of the changes he noticed did not come across as humour, but bitter grumpiness. The shape of his nose is apparently changing and his sexual prowess is fading.
Really? Is this aging’s worst threat? What’s wrong with growing old? And his nose changing shape? Oh vanity, vanity! I want to tell Mr. Brown that growing old isn’t a disaster.
When I turned 50, I said to myself, “This is the beginning of life.” In the 10 years between my 50th and 60th birthdays, I looked around and discovered many new ventures to enrich myself.
I transformed myself from a couch potato into a power walker. I joined a walking class and progressed step by step from not being able to walk fast for one minute, to entering races. I even completed a marathon, walking the entire distance. I power walk to stay fit and healthy. This is not to say I am oblivious to the changes in my body and my performance. I never entered a race before I was 50, but I can well imagine that 20 years ago I would have raced faster. Even so, does it matter? I am doing what I can and I am at peace with myself. No regrets!
When I turned 60, I felt good. In fact, I felt great. I reassured myself, “Sixty is the new 40.” I took up creative writing, while I continued to work part-time. I did not feel that I had reached a watershed at 60.
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For a while, I experimented with blogging and wrote about my love for hiking. To make the blog more interesting, I became more adventurous in taking snapshots with my cellphone and added photo inserts to illustrate my posts. Blogging opened the door to a new dimension of social interaction with strangers, of which I was generally more wary. Never an extrovert in real life, it turns out I don’t like mindless chatter in the cyberworld, either.
Another milestone birthday arrived recently, the one that delivers discounts in shops, restaurants, museums and public transport. Still, getting older hasn’t bothered me.
Why should growing old be depressing, as Mr. Brown sees it?
I look at my mother, who, at 89, is my inspiration to keep up with technology. She checks her e-mail every day and clicks reply, delete and forward as she wishes. Though her siblings who are scattered across the globe, she is in touch with the whole world, it seems. I install WhatsApp, which she enjoys using to communicate with her children in both English and Chinese on her iPad. She is fluent in emoji.
She embraces life and has something to look forward to every day. She never moans about her knee problems. She puts some ointment on her knees in the morning and starts her day with tai chi. She cannot bend as low as the instructor. She cannot raise her hands above her head. Who cares? As we age, we are not immune to the usual physical changes, let alone any hereditary conditions. Indeed, I have at least 10 health-related appointments every year, covering various physical organs and systems of my body. I do not complain, for they give me a sense of comfort that I can discuss my changing body with a knowledgeable person and make decisions on how to take care of myself.
I am not oblivious to my mortality, but I have decided not to loathe my physical body but live life as it is. It is more frightening to have a disillusioned soul than an aging body. It is futile to encase a hopeless spirit in a young-looking shell. It is only when we decide to continue to be ourselves and embrace the age-appropriate changes in our body that we have peace of mind.

The West has bred a culture of ageism and an inability to accept the natural changes that take place in our lifespan. Too many people cling to their younger selves, afraid to flow with time and nature. This is an arrested mentality. I hope Mr. Brown will emerge from gazing into his wrinkling navel to cherishing the joy that life promises him, by being who he is. I certainly wish that he has a happier 63rd birthday.
(A version of this article was published in the Facts and Arguments Column of The Globe and Mail under the titel “60 is the new 40” in 2017.)