Japanese culture has always intrigued me. When I was a child there were a few Japanese families in my neighborhood, and several years ago I worked with a team from Japan, which included a seminar on how to do business with the Japanese. I’m sure our American ways were just as strange — if not more so — to my Japanese playmates and coworkers as theirs were to me.
How to Be an American Housewife, now in paperback, is based on author Margaret Dilloway’s mother’s personal experiences. The novel begins with Shoko, a Japanese wife and mother, recalling incidents from her childhood in Japan during World War II – almost being kidnapped by a nanny, playing baseball with her brother and his friends, running from an American bomber. In between narration of her present-day life in San Diego, including doctor visits for an enlarged heart, Shoko tells of how her parents sent her to work in Kumamoto City to earn money for her brother Taro to finish college, and to find an American husband. Shoko yearns to return to Japan to find her estranged brother, to whom she has neither written nor spoken to since the day she left Japan because of her decision to marry an American, but her doctor forbids travel due to her heart condition, believed to be a result of the radiation from the bombing of Nagasaki. Shoko decides to ask her daughter Sue (short or Suiko) to travel to Japan and deliver a letter to Taro.
Sue is the exact opposite of her mother. A self-proclaimed good girl, she’s divorced from the first boy she ever kissed and raising their teenaged daughter Helena alone. She’s stuck in a job she despises and is unable to move past Shoko’s insults and impatience with her as a child. Helena is more like her grandmother than her mother. Spunky, outgoing and intelligent, she pushes her mother to try new things and easily navigates her way around Japan. Sue and Helena reunite with relatives they didn’t know they had and are surprised to feel quite at home in their ancestral land. Sue returns home with new conviction and a new perspective on her mother, and they finally gain the closeness that eluded them through most of Sue’s life.
Each chapter of the novel begins with an excerpt from the fictional how-to guide called How to Be an American Housewife. These tidbits are often amusing and give insight into how the Japanese viewed Americans in the 1950’s. Advice on how to treat the husband, what meals to cook and how to raise the children range from humorous to bizarre, at least to my American sensibilities.
How to Be an American Housewife is an excellent story about mothers and daughters, the differences between post-war Japan and the United States, and moving on from your past, no matter how hard it is to do so.
Please visit the On Reading column featuring a guest post by How to Be An American Housewife author Margaret Dilloway. Click on over to read about the closure she earned by writing about her mother.
Nancy would love to visit Japan someday. She writes about her 2 boys, books and life in Colorado at Life With My Boys and Books.