Requiem by Frances Itani

Requiem, by Frances Itani
Harper Collins Publishers, 2011
Reviewed by Kari Tanaka
Melodic.  Authentic.  Poignant.  Reverent.  All words to describe Frances Itani’s masterpiece, Requiem.  Written in the first person, this novel reads like a memoir, opening in 1997 shortly after the unexpected passing of Bin Okuma’s wife.  A recent empty-nester and now widower, Bin decides that the time has come to chase the ghosts of his childhood.  With art supplies, classical music, and faithful hound in tow, Bin begins his cross country journey back to the Fraser Valley and the site of the internment camp that he once called home.
The most compelling storyline in this novel is the thread that recounts Bin’s childhood and the expulsion of his family from the west coast of B.C. following the bombing of Pearl Harbour in 1941.  The youngest of three children, Bin is tasked with carrying the family’s rice pot.  It is heavy and bangs into his small legs with each step but he dares not complain, knowing that this is just one of the few items they were able to take before they were forcibly removed from their home.  Herded onto mail boats destined for the mainland, Bin and his family watch helplessly as prized possessions, including a neighbour’s beloved piano, are stolen from their homes; looted in plain sight before the boats even have a chance to pull away from the shore.  The sights, smells, and deplorable conditions of the Hasting’s Park stables, where numerous Japanese-Canadian families were housed, are described with such historical accuracy that my own grandmother could have written them.  It is obvious that Itani has done exhaustive research to preserve the authenticity of the narrative and I was not surprised to learn that, amongst the lengthy list of historical works acknowledged at the back of the book, are interviews with her own mother-in-law and relatives who provided first-hand knowledge of their own personal experiences during the war.
Bin’s story continues as a group of families attempt to rebuild a community on a narrow strip of land in the Fraser Valley.  The camp is cut-off from the town by a river on one side and a mountain on the other, but the resourcefulness of the people prevails as they find ways to provide first, the basic necessities of food and shelter, and later, to develop schools, irrigation methods, and a thriving tomato farm to sustain the small “town”.  It is during this time at the camp that Bin begins to demonstrate his artistic ability, leading First Father to make a decision that will divide the family for years to come.
Eventually, Bin is able to leave the confines of the camp with his mentor Okuma-san and, even though their next home is nothing more than a refurbished chicken coop, Okuma-san continues to nurture Bin’s artistic side and fights for him to receive a fair education in a public school.  The prejudices of his hakujin, (white), classmates and teachers fuel the anger and resentment that he has been harbouring, and that he will continue to harbour well into his adulthood. 
Two other threads also weave through the novel, one being the literal journey across the country and the other made up of flashbacks of Bin’s marriage to Lena and the life they built raising their son, Greg.  The storylines jump in and out of each other frequently and I felt it took a bit of time for the threads pertaining to Bin’s adulthood to become as riveting as the memories of his childhood.  I was initially impatient to get back to the 1940s whenever the narrative jumped back to 1997 and wondered why Itani chose to take a retrospective approach at all. However, midway through the book, the threads began to tighten and, by the end, I appreciated the initial tension between the past and the present.  The only other slight criticism that I would have is that the reconciliation between the past and the present, the father and the son, was tied up almost too neatly.  I felt that the last few chapters were a touch too blatant for me and that I was being told details that I had already gleaned from the rest of the novel.  However, I am left to wonder if my criticism of the ending stems from the fact that I was so moved and satisfied by this novel that I simply did not want it to end at all.
Francis Itani’s novel, Requiem, is available in fine bookstores everywhere, including your U of L Bookstore.