My Friend the Enemy
Alfred A. Knopf Books, 2005.
Hazel is nine years old when Japanese planes bomb Pearl Harbour. Two years later she grapples with anti-Japanese sentiment in her quiet Oregon community. The `Japs' are a clearly identifiable and obviously dangerous enemy and anybody with the same ethnic background is subject to suspicious scrutiny.
Although Hazel is not happy that her older friend neighbour Jed volunteers for the Marines, the effects of prejudice and raw emotions generated by the War are limited to her vivid imagination as she fantasises about being a secret agent as she plays on local farms and the neighbourhood.
Reality begins to bite when Hazel discovers that Jed's parents have been secretly harbouring fifteen-year-old Sogoji as a general labourer. Every other Japanese resident in the county has been interred in camps as an enemy alien. The pair experience natural awkwardness on meeting but mutual understanding grows as they build an observation tower on a hill that acts as a lookout for `enemy' planes as well as a metaphor as a beacon amidst the darkness of global conflict.
Sogoji's clandestine relationship with Hazel is beautifully drawn as a delicate cameo of how prejudice and the raw emotion of war affects individuals caught by forces beyond their control. Other characters continue their lives and cope in their own ways with the stress on relationships forged and broken in the heat of uncertainty. The fight for survival is as much a civilian as a military one. There is a real sense of a genuine community built in the piece. Teachers, farmers and families are shaped by their reactions to the impact of a war fought essentially outside their borders as much as shapers of their own destiny.
Hazel may struggle with the concepts of loyalty, patriotism and kinship, but she has little problem cutting through the fog of complexity when she has to decide how to treat a friend in trouble suffering from a similarly complex set of competing emotions.
Cheaney writes with sensitivity but there is no moralising or simplification. The story flows to the natural rhythm of the setting and the intrusion of war and its related tragedy handled with skilful aplomb. The story is based on well-established facts, some of which have only recently come to light. This is not the first novel for young adults to feature the experiences of Japanese-Americans, but it serves as a useful reminder of the need for vigilance in times of adversity.
August 12, 2005
Paul McGuire is a freelance author, writer and reviewer.
He is also Deputy Principal of Sha Tin Junior School.