Title: How to Be an American Housewife
Author: Margaret Dilloway
Genre: Multi-cultural fiction
Publisher: G.P. Putnam’s Sons
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Source: ARC from Library Thing
First line: I had always been a disobedient girl.
Shoko was a young Japanese girl when the atomic bomb was dropped on nearby Nagasaki. She grew into her teen years and young adulthood in a Japan occupied by the United States military. Her father encouraged her to marry an American, knowing that a future in America would hold more promise and opportunity for her. She followed her head rather than her heart, and married Charlie Morgan, emigrating to the United States. In her new country, she is an outsider, never fitting in with the other military wives or the PTA. She tries to pass on her values to her daughter, Suiko, but the cultural divide between them is vast. When Shoko’s heart condition – a condition acquired because of her proximity to the atomic bomb – becomes worse, she is determined to reconcile with her brother, Taro, before she dies. Unable to travel to Japan, she convinces Suiko to take her daughter Helena to the land of her forefathers and make amends on her behalf.
This is the second book I’ve read this year dealing with Asian emigration to the United States; Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok was the first. While Ms. Kwok’s wonderful novel deals with the experience from that of a young girl from Hong Kong, How to Be an American Housewife vividly illustrates the challenges facing the Japanese women who accompanied American G.I.s home from Japan in the years following World War II. Ms. Dilloway accompanies each chapter of Shoko’s story with a quote from the fictional guide How to Be an American Housewife, a book which encourages the Japanese women to give up the traditions, customs, and habits of their homeland and adapt to their new home.
The book has shifts in perspective and in time, as Shoko’s story of growing up and meeting Charlie – and leaving her true love behind in Japan – is slowly revealed, along with her efforts to be a good wife to Charlie and a good mother to Mike and Suiko. The mother-daughter dynamic is a complicated one in the best of circumstances, and Shoko and Suiko’s relationship difficulties are compounded by the cultural divide between Japan and America. As Suiko travels to her mother’s homeland, she begins to understand Shoko – and herself – in a new way.
The two women’s perspectives are drawn extremely well, with Shoko’s halting voice and stilted grammar demonstrating not only her lack of English skills, but the practical, stoic nature which allowed her to make a new life for herself. Suiko is unable to see herself accurately amid the constant struggle between wanting her mother’s approval and yet resisting her traditional ways. I enjoyed exploring the contrast between Japan and the US, between mother and daughter, with these characters, and look forward to Ms. Dilloway’s next book.