Berkley Trade|August 2 2011|Trade Paperback|ISBN: 978-0-425-24129-5
A mother daughter story about the strong pull of tradition, and the lure and cost of breaking free of it. When Shoko decided to marry an American GI and leave Japan she had her parents blessing, her brother’s scorn, and a gift from her husband – a book on how to be a proper American housewife.
As she crossed the ocean to America, Shoko also brought with her a secret she would need to keep her entire life…
Half a century later, Shoko’s plans to finally return to Japan and reconcile with her brother are derailed by illness. In her place, she sends her grown American daughter, Sue, a divorced single mother whose own life isn’t what she hoped for. As Sue takes in Japan, with all its beauty and contradictions, she discovers another side to her mother and returns to America unexpectedly changed and irrevocably touched.
A most enjoyable story that is mixed with both a bit of truth and a bit of fiction on the part of the author, Margaret Dilloway. In real life her mother Suiko O’Brien always told her that her life would make a great book and she was right as this is exactly what she accomplished with “How to Be an American Housewife”.
As she was growing up her Mother told her stories of what happened to her during her youth in World War II – era Japan. But when Margaret was in college, her mother’s health left her confined to bed and she asked her mother to record her stories about her life on tape. It was from these stories that How to Be an American Housewife was born. Not all of the stories have been incorporated into the book but a few of them have and rest is fiction.
In the story, a young Shoko was in love with Ronin and became pregnant but could not marry him and instead married an American GI and fled Japan to live in San Francisco where she thought she could make a better life for herself. She had her son, Mike and later a daughter, Sue. Her husband, Charlie, was understanding of Shoko’s plight and accepted Mike as his own son and put his name down on his birth certificate as his biological father. He loved that child like his own. However, Shoko didn’t love Charlie at the time she married him, she just wanted to escape Japan and hoped to build a better life in America but love was built over the years they spent together. Charlie was good to Shoko.
She became estranged from her family back in Japan and when she became ill later in life wanted to make amends but was too ill to make the journey back on her own so she asked her daughter, Sue, to go in her place. She’d written a letter to her brother and asked Sue to deliver it to him and to return with an answer. Sue and her teenaged daughter, Helena made the sojourn, tracked down the brother but he was less than happy to see them and at first just walked away from them. He had been a high school principal but retired and had since become a Priest. After thinking over his rude treatment of Sue and her daughter, he returned, apologized and the visit resumed. Sue gave him the letter from Shoko and he did respond but during the visit Sue received a phone call that her mother was in the intensive care unit back home and possibly dying so their Japan trip was cut short and the two women returned to America immediately.
What we learn in this novel is how mother’s and daughter’s communicate, how difficulties in families and not just between mother’s and daughter’s is universal; that Japanese mothers raised their sons differently from their daughters and how prejudice and sterotypes are prevalent in all societies, not just Japanese and American and the cost of keeping secrets and how the power of love within a family can heal even the oldest of wounds.
How to Be an American Housewife provides us with a lot of food for thought and it is one book I’ll definitely be recommending to my friends. It was a well-written, descriptive, straight-forward read that left you feeling and realizing that every society experiences the same problems, upsets, estrangements, and familial controversies the world over, but like the old adage “blood is thicker than water” is a good summation of this story.