Canada Reads 2018: Book Review of ‘Forgiveness’ by Mark Sakamoto

Mark Sakamoto’s family memoir was first published in 2014. The book reemerges now due to the Canada Reads 2018 event. The annual battle of the books is CBC’s reading campaign. Five Canadian media and entertainment celebs will defend one of the five shortlisted books in a national broadcast March 26-29. The panelists will vote down one book each day to arrive at the winner. Audience can tune in on the debates via radio, TV and live stream online.

Mark Sakamoto is a lawyer by training and has enjoyed a varied career. In Forgiveness, he writes about his grandparents’ real-life experiences, two contrasting, traumatic WWII accounts. The subtitle of the book is telling, Forgiveness: A Gift from my Grandparents.

Forgiveness (1)Mark Sakamoto’s maternal grandfather Ralph MacLean is from the Magdalen Islands in the east  coast of Canada. In 1940, he enlisted with the army voluntarily together with his friend. After a few months’ training they were sent overseas to Hong Kong, oblivious to the perils into which they were driven. With the British already retreating a hopeless post, MacLean’s garrison didn’t have a chance to defend the then British Colony. In a few short weeks after their arrival, all two thousand or so Canadian soldiers were either dead or turned POWs forced to live in sub-human, horrific conditions under their Japanese captors.

… the fate of 819 men was sealed. They would never return home. The remaining 1,155 survivors would be forgiven if they sometimes felt they were the unlucky ones.

Later, MacLean was shipped to Japan to work for the Japanese war effort, from POW to slave laborer. That he survived at all was a miracle.

Cut to the other side of the world in Canada. Mark’s paternal grandparents Mitsue and Hideo Sakamoto were born in British Columbia and lived in a fishing community. Grandma Mitsue’s father, together with thousands of other Japanese Canadians, had their own boats and were doing well as fishermen in a closed-knit community.

During the time Ralph MacLean was barely surviving as a POW in Japan, the Sakamotos, being Japanese Canadians, went through their own battle in a land they called home. Their families were interned and sent to rural Alberta as forced farm laborers. The family fishing boat, and all their possessions were confiscated. Together with thousands of Japanese Canadians–many Canadian born–Mitsue, Hideo and everyone in their extended families, young and old, were put on a train barely suited for human passengers, under the watchful eyes of policemen with rifles, and transported to Lethbridge, Alberta. There Mitsue and Hideo were separated with their parents as they were sent to different farms to work as laborers, living in shacks of wood planks and dirt floor.

After the war, Ralph MacLean came back from Japan and settled in Calgary, Alberta. Mitsue’s families knew they had no home to return to in B.C. after receiving a compensation cheque of $25.65 from the Canadian government for the loss of all their properties. They decided to remain in Medicine Hat, Alberta. Fate has it that Ralph’s daughter Diane and Mitsue’s son Stan met in a high school dance. When Ralph eventually met his future son-in-law, who looked like one of his wartime tormentors, he knew he needed to leave the past behind. The two families first met at a dinner in Mitsue’s home:

Mitsue and Ralph became instant friends. There was an unspoken understanding between them… they had both discarded the past, keeping only what they needed. They did not compare hardships or measures injustices. They knew there was no merits to that.

Two families who had suffered torments of varying degrees during the war and for very different reasons came together as their children joined in marriage. What a wonderful story. Yet the above short few lines are all that readers can find relating to how the two families came together. Despite the extraordinary personal experiences, the book fell short of delivering a satisfying read.

With the bold, one-word title, “Forgiveness”, it is surprising that the author leaves us with little internal reflections or insights. For Ralph, having gone through so much trauma and physical torments, we are told in only a few lines how he came to the state of forgiveness, that is when he read his Bible during the last days in the Japanese war camp, turning to Mark 25:11, “And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.” That is all being mentioned, just the quote. It seems a lot of the forgiveness is left to the reader’s own assumption and speculation.

It matters little that it lacks literary style, or that the writing is conversational. The short sentences make it a fast read and descriptions are vivid, especially the war years. While the thematic materials are worth telling, the book lacks editorial work to make it a cohesive whole. There are sections that are disjointed, the chapters uneven. There are moments where readers have to join the gaps on their own. The photos are helpful for readers to visualize, but there are no captions right underneath except all stated in a list at the back of the book, not too drastic a fault but an inconvenience still.

Structurally, the first two-thirds of the book about the war years are stark personal experiences many North Americans are not familiar with. These painful, eyewitness accounts told to the author by his grandparents are informative and necessary for us to know. But after that, the last part of the book about Mark and his parents, especially at the end how he had to care for his mother’s debilitating addictions after his parents’ divorce reads like another story unrelated to the earlier part, and Ralph and Mitsue seem to have disappeared.

Nevertheless, for the personal torments of Ralph’s as a POW under Japanese hands during WWII, and the maltreatment of Japanese Canadians had undergone at the same time right here in Canada, Sakamoto’s book is of value as eyewitness accounts to history and a cautionary real-life tale of how we ought to go forward as a civilized society. The last section of the book could well lead to another personal memoir dealing with the urgent social issue of addictions.

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Forgiveness: A Gift from my Grandparents by Mark Sakamoto, HarperCollins Publisher, Toronto, 2014.

My review copy provided by the Publisher.

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Arti

If she’s not birding by the Pond, Arti’s likely watching a movie, reading, or writing a review. Bylines in Asian American Press, Vague Visages, Curator Magazine.

6 thoughts on “Canada Reads 2018: Book Review of ‘Forgiveness’ by Mark Sakamoto”

  1. This book sounds fascinating but as you indicated, flawed. I didn’t realize that Canada also had the internment camps — certainly one of the big travesties of U.S. history. I’m on the fence on this one. I think I’d find much of it intriguing and enlightening, if sad and yet feel dissatisfied at the end. A dilemma.

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    1. With the Pacific War during WWII, there were two kinds of suffering. North Americans might be more prone to feel about the internment issue, as this happened in their country. Growing up in Hong Kong, I was made aware of the other suffering, the war time atrocities in Asia under Japanese invasion. I grew up hearing stories about the Nanking massacre, the ruthless treatment of POWs in Japanese war camps. “The Railway Man” the memoir (movie with Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman) is one of the few books on the issue, “Unbroken” (made into movie by Angelina Jolie) is another one. Don’t know if you’ve heard of Iris Chang’s book, a historical account, “The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II”. Do click on this link to NYT’s short write-up upon Chang’s death at 36. She was greatly traumatized by her research and writing of the book before her death.

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  2. Just commenting on the following:
    “For Ralph, having gone through so much trauma and physical torments, we are told in only a few lines how he came to the state of forgiveness, that is when he read his Bible during the last days in the Japanese war camp, turning to Mark 25:11, “And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.” That is all being mentioned, just the quote.”
    This quote taken from your article speaks worlds to me, because it means to me, that Ralph fully took into his heart the Living Word of God. Not to say he did not have some mental and emotional trials, concerning all of this at times throughout his life.
    So much suffering……God bless, C-Marie

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    1. C-Marie,

      Thanks for your two pebbles. You’re absolutely right, God can speak to us directly through His Word in any situation, but Mark Sakamoto, not being God, but as a writer of a memoir, needs to build that bridge that connects his character with the readers. I’m afraid he hasn’t built a strong enough bridge to elaborate and convey, therefore leaving readers to just assume or guess, or being left with a void. It’s unfortunate, because the theme of ‘forgiveness’ can ripple into deeper meaning and stronger effects. Thanks for stopping by, your comment is always welcome here at the Pond. 🙂

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      1. Thank you so much, Arti, for accepting my reply. I have not read the book, and I have learned much from my husband about the responsibility of writers to take their readers onwards, and to not leave them stranded. God bless, C-Marie

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