Libraries are my jam. I love them, from their smell—nay, fragrance—to their coziness. I love how full of words they are, of knowledge. How everything is at your fingertips, just waiting to be taken home for a few weeks.
Libraries are something that I miss here in Japan. Of course, Japan has its own library system, and there’s nothing wrong with it; it’s just different. And here in Kamakura, I really can’t complain, because for a city of its size, Kamakura has a pretty good selection of what I need most from a library right now: English-language children’s books.
It was browsing the shelves of the Kamakura Chuo Library that my older daughter and I came across The Wakame Gatherers for the first time. As wakame is gathered on the beach right by our house, the book immediately piqued our interest. It was added to the pile, and we headed home.
Imagine our surprise later in the day when we started reading the book only to recognize some of the illustrations. It went a little something like this:
Why, this train looks just like the Enoden Line that runs through town! And this bay looks just like the bay down the road! And this island—why, it has to be Enoshima!
And it was! As a result, a copy of the book has found its way onto our shelves permanently, while another now sits on the shelf of a young cousin back home in Canada.
The Wakame Gatherers tells the story of Nanami, a young girl whose father is Japanese and whose mother is American. Nanami’s American grandmother is visiting Nanami and her family, who live with Baachan—Nanami’s Japanese grandmother—in the Kamakura-Enoshima area.
The meat of the story begins when Nanami and her two grandmothers head out to collect wakame seaweed that has washed ashore. It is Nanami’s first time acting as the sole interpreter for her grandmothers, and while she’s a bit nervous, it goes fairly well.
She does run into one problem, however—though at first, she’s not quite sure why Baachan hesitates to answer a question she’s asked. She’s used the right language with the right grandmother after all.
We learn that Nanami’s innocent series of questions has inadvertently led the conversation into the topic of World War Two, a war that killed Baachan’s mother. This venture into difficult territory is handled gently and authentically as Nanami ponders the fact that when they were girls, her grandmothers—as citizens of countries at war with each other—were enemies. Two sides of her same self, at war.
This part of the book always makes me tear up as it hits so close to home. Though my own parents were born after the war, my husband’s father fought for the Imperial Japanese Army while his mother lived through the firebombing of Tokyo. The death of my mother-in-law’s mother, though not caused by bombing, is indirectly tied to the war.
The confusion that Nanami feels in The Wakame Gatherers will, at some point, be felt by my own children. I’ve already mentioned the internment of Canadians of Japanese heritage to the older of my two kids. Diving deeper into that as she gets older will be a painful but necessary journey.
As the two grandmothers and Nanami stand in the waves under a bright sun contemplating the war while surrounded by surfers and happy-go-lucky people strolling across the sand, Baachan says, “Nanami-chan, always protect this peace.”
That such an important message is woven so naturally into a story that we assumed would stick to wakame gathering was a surprise the first time we read the book. And that’s exactly why it has become such a favourite.
It is a story about wakame gathering, but it’s also a story about the joys of being an international family; of sharing bits of your culture with each other, and of sharing difficult histories, too. It’s about the complexity of being born into multiple cultures. It’s about how the wounds of war can be overcome, and how even bright new life can emerge from the ashes.
All that, and it even comes with a recipe for wakame soup.
Unfortunately, this book isn’t currently available through Indigo, Chapter’s online bookshop, though several other books by Holly Thompson are. It is available through Amazon, though. Or, better yet, order a copy through your local bookshop or ask your local library to add it to their “books to purchase” list. The Wakame Gatherers is a wonderful addition to any bookshelf.