Lucy Takeda is just fourteen years old, living in Los Angeles, when the bombs rain down on Pearl Harbor. Within weeks, she and her mother, Miyako, are ripped from their home, rounded up-along with thousands of other innocent Japanese-Americans-and taken to the Manzanar prison camp. Buffeted by blistering heat and choking dust, Lucy and Miyako must endure the harsh living conditions of the camp. Corruption and abuse creep into every corner of Manzanar, eventually ensnaring beautiful, vulnerable Miyako. Ruined and unwilling to surrender her daughter to the same fate, Miyako soon breaks. Her final act of desperation will stay with Lucy forever…and spur her to sins of her own.
I noticed that an advance copy of this book was available for review and was instantly drawn to it as I had been a big admirer of the BBC television series Tenko which told the story of various women of different nationalities imprisoned as prisoners of war and their brutal struggles. It is with this series in mind that I approached this novel.
Garden of Stones is a story of many things – prejudice mainly, but also loss and hope. But it is also a story of two halves as we flit between 1978 and World War II. In 1978 San Francisco, Lucy’s daughter Patty is about to marry, but Lucy is being questioned over the murder of Reg Forrest – a man known to her from the Manzanar camp. Could she have murdered him?
The flitting between time periods is not the most effective way of telling the story. The sequences set during wartime are by far the most interesting. Patty’s Nancy Drew style detecting just isn’t as engaging as the hardships and conditions endured by the women of Manzanar. Certainly as Lucy arrives at the camp, the gulf between hopeful youngster and potential murderer is too yawning to contemplate.
Much like Tenko, we see the pride before the fall. Not unreasonably, Littlefield sets out the Takeda’s wealth and material possessions. With some exceptionally undignified sequences, it is a substantial fall. One moment, both shocking and simple, set in the toilet block could still be shamefully within living memory for some.
Littlefield is able to craft the effect of the war on the women. She takes great care to mould the kindly Aiko, Lucy’s father. As he dies before the camp, the details about him get vaguer. And it is this sense of loss, whether that be for material possessions, loved ones, or innocence that permeates the story.
The men are mostly flawed in Littlefield’s story. The majority are only concerned with “showing [the girls] how to become a woman” – they may be physically strong, but they are mentally weak. Even Jessie, Lucy’s soulmate is worn down by the grinding nature of the men.
Lucy constantly seems to be swapping one form of prison for another throughout the book. This attempts to bring some tension to the modern day narrative as faces a murder charge. But the modern day narrative is disappointing. Lucy seems to be scarred by the people, not necessarily the events. This is a shame given real-life Manzanar internees who fought to ensure history never repeats itself. What could have been a portrait of an extraordinarily resilient girl instead disappoints. In burying the details of Manzanar, it feels like Lucy has failed her mother, and her fellow campmates.
Overall, Garden of Stones is a detailed, if not wholly satisfying story of hardship. Lucy’s modern day peril is not engaging, yet the final pages will startle you. Littlefield is clearly accomplished at the historical portions of her book, the filthy conditions and lecherous men placing you right there in Manzanar. But in placing the focus on a wealthy family, some of the more real people have been displaced, and the lack of a mix of characters risks damaging the story given how alien the narrator feels at times.
The Fiction Stroker gives Garden of Stones two strokes out of five: