Lily Yuriko Nakai Havey recalls her time in the Japanese internment camps during World War II as a child in Gasa Gasa Girl Goes to Camp. She tells the story through memories and anecdotes, taking artistic liberty to fill in gaps when necessary. It was interesting to read about everyday life in the camps, especially through the eyes of a child.
In the first section, Camping at Santa Anita, Lily looks to the family’s arrival to assembly relocation camps, minus her father, at times, as he frequently left the family due to his frustration and presumably depression. I was a particularly struck by Lily’s misunderstanding of what the camp would entail, instead imagining a camping trip with tents and hiking, because it really seemed to drive home her innocence and the cruelty of the situation. She also reflects on her childhood in Hollywood and their simple hopes, dreams, trips, and moments, and the gradual escalation of the Japanese empire, up until Pearl Harbor. To Lily and her family, daily life had been more important and relevant. At the camps, guards were aggressive and in school, Lily was made to even pledge allegiance to the country that unjustly relocated and imprisoned her for no other reason than her ancestry. A riot emerged due to the confiscation of hot plates used to heat milk for babies, but it dissipated, and Lily noted that the following day was “extraordinary because it was so ordinary” (31). Lily lived in fear of the soldiers, furthered as she heard gossip that the soldiers killed someone, and was terrified, when a spotlight followed her as she walked back from the bathroom one night, that she would be killed.
I was also interested in the dynamics between Lily and her parents. Throughout the book, her father largely remains distant, despite Lily’s desire to forge a closer relationship with him, due to his gambling and drinking problems, departure to work outside the camp, and his reluctance to allow Lily to participate in “boy” activities. There is also a fair bit about gender and coming of age in the book, with Lily’s restriction to “girl activities” and the reference to “bad women” who move their hips, her curiosity around breasts and penises, wondering about the mystery of sex, and receiving her period. I especially liked Lily’s mother, who had great endurance and found independence. I admired how she persevered to learn English, graduate sewing school, and get Lily to take extracurriculars all on her own. Lily also writes of her parents’ difficult upbringings and paths to America.
In the second section, Settling at Amache, the family traveled by train to a permanent camp. Lily receives a diary and thinks of her past, such as when a boy at school was racist towards her. While on the train, her mother shared stories of her childhood in Japan and Lily thinks of her mother’s sewing work. Upon arriving at the camp, her mother began to work as a sewing teacher and Lily attends school and writes letters. The family also began to make friends.
The third section is Seasons, Joys, and Sorrows. New Year festivities occur despite the circumstances, and people feel joy. Lily describes the animals around the camp. She is jealous of the rabbits, who are free to go wherever they wish, and feels that the howls of the coyotes are sad and lamenting. She also describes the brutal weather in Amache. Lily also writes of her grandparents and her relationship, or lack thereof, with them. I enjoyed Eva’s mother, in this section, as she was quite the character.
The fourth section, Stepping Toward Freedom, begins with the topic of birthdays, including Lily’s, Elizabeth’s, and Lily’s mother. Her father returns and tells her it is okay to cheat or break the rules sometimes. Lily becomes overwhelmed with just how unfair everything is and becomes more aware about the perception of Japanese Americans. Her friend’s brother attempted to escape. The government decided that the camp needed to sustain itself so it could focus funds on the war, and those on the outside were angry that those in the camp were given rationed food, so the camp created a farm initiative. When the war ended and the camps were closing, her family had to figure out how to live back in the real world. They could not return to California, where some Japanese families were attacked for returning, and they had to return to a society they had been removed from years ago and where they were unwelcome.
I really enjoyed this book. I think it provided a unique, necessary perspective of the internment camps, and I found it interesting to learn about daily life in the camps. I also really liked Havey’s art and captions, as I felt they added to the narrative and helped me understand how influential or traumatic certain moments in the camp were in her life.