All her life, Rinko Tsujimura has been different. Mostly it’s been the fact that she’s a Japanese immigrant to America and looks so different from everyone else. At school, the kids tease her, ignore her, or laugh at her. But hey, at least Mrs. Sugar next door loves her.
When Rinko returns home from school one day, she receives a surprise – her Aunt Waka is coming all the way from Japan to visit them in California. At first, Rinko’s not sure it’s a happy surprise – it means she’ll have to give up her room and move into her brother’s. But other news is also waiting for her.
Rinko’s papa is five months behind in paying the rent on their home. They need to find another way to get an income. Mother suggests that they start a home laundry. Everyone agrees, and when Aunt Waka arrives, she falls in readily with the plan as well.
But Wilbur Starr, owner of Starr Laundry, is not as pleased with their plan. He begins threatening the Tsujimura family, and even goes so far as to take violent steps against their laundry business.
Will the Tsujimura family fold? Or will they stand up for their business against this powerful antagonist?
Joji has pretty typical mostly-teasing-but-still-friendly relationship with both her brothers. Rinko wries, “I’m pretty good at getting Joji’s goat. I love to tease him because Cal’s always doing it to me. Poor old Joji, I guess sometimes he gets it from both Cal and me, and that’s probably why he has a dog.” [pg. 14] It’s not until Cal leaves and their family is in danger that Rinko realizes how much she really loves her family.
Rinko has a very close relationship with her next-door neighbor, Mrs. Sugar.
Mrs. Sugar is a very large person and has the nicest soft lap to sit in. I discovered that when I was a lot younger and used to need comforting on the days when I came home and found Mama out at work. [pg. 31]
Rinko catches Joji doing something he’s not supposed to, but agrees with him not to tell Mama.
Rinko suffers from being teased and ignored at school, but instead of telling her parents how she feels, she says, “I can’t seem to tell her or Papa. In fact, I can’t talk to anybody about the way I feel at school. Not to Cal or to my best friend, Tami, or to Mrs. Sugar.” [pg. 41] She later reveals all of her thoughts and hurts to her Aunt Waka. She winds up by telling her how ashamed she feels of herself and how she wishes she wasn’t so different. Aunt Waka’s counsel is typical self-help lingo.
Rinko, don’t ever be ashamed of who you are,” she said. “Just be the best person you can. Believe in your own worth. And someday I know you’ll be able to feel proud of yourself, even the part of you that’s different . . . the part that’s Japanese. [pg. 125]
There is a difference between becoming a self-inflated, cocky person and learning that another person’s opinion of you should not determine the way you think about yourself, but it was unclear which of these Aunt Waka was advocating.
One of the ways Mr. Starr tries to get the Tsujimuras to shut down their laundry is by killing their pet dog.
We all rushed outside then, and there was poor Maxie lying in the driveway with blood pouring from his neck. Papa was bent over him trying to see if he still had a pulse, and Cal had run out to the street to see if there was any sign of the car.
Joji put Maxie on his lap and kept stroking his head. “Aw, Maxie,” he said, and he began to sob. “Don’t die, Maxie. Please don’t die.”
But we all knew it was too late. Somebody had shot Maxie and not all of Joji’s tears or even Aunt Waka’s herbs and medicines could save him.
I began to cry too because I felt so bad. I wished I hadn’t said all those mean things about Joji’s dog. I wished I’d said something when I’d had that creepy feeling and told Joji not to leave Maxie outside.
Mama and Papa tried to comfort Joji, and Aunt Waka put her arm around me. She told me to stop crying, but I just couldn’t.
Mrs. Sugar must have heard all the noise, because pretty soon she came padding over in her pink bathrobe and slippers.
“What is it?” she asked. “What’s happened?”
Then she saw Joji with blood all over his pajamas, holding Maxie on his lap. She knelt down beside him and said, “Oh, my poor sweet Joji, who’s done this awful thing to your darling Maxie?” [pgs. 79-80]
:'( Joji, in his anger, says that he “oughta go bash in his head”, ‘his’ being Wilbur Starr. Later, after Papa confronts Mr. Starr, Joji says “I could have bashed him on the head with my bat, except Rink got in my way.” I understood his anger, but was disappointed that nobody had taught him that violence is usually not the best way to respond to cruelty.
Rinko’s Papa tells her that the reason one of their friends looks so old when he’s really still young is because “the lady he was supposed to marry jumped out of a window and killed herself two days after she arrived from Japan.” [pg. 43]
Rinko says that she stays inside when her Papa butchers chickens because she “can’t stand seeing those headless corpses with their bloody dangling necks.” [pg. 44]
Rinko’s mother is what Rinko calls an ‘ardent Christian’. Rinko has a disrespectful attitude towards her mother’s devotion.
As soon as we all sat down, Mama said she wanted to say the grace that night instead of Papa.
“Keep it short, Ma,” Cal said.
“Yeah, I’m starving,” Joji said.
We all knew about Mama’s long conversation with God. Every night she sits on her bed with her legs folded underneath, Japanese style, and talks to God as though He lived next door. Some nights she has so much to say to Him, I can hear her mumbling on and on through the walls of my room until I fall asleep.
She began one of her long conversations that night at supper, telling God how grateful she was that her sister was coming at last to visit us and asking Him to watch over Waka as she sailed across the ocean to America. She sounded as though she’d go on for a half hour, but when she stopped for a minute to catch her breath, Papa jumped in and said in a loud voice, “And we thank you for this food. Amen.”
We all said amen real fast too, so God would know the rest of us were finished, even if Mama wasn’t. [pgs. 23-24]
Rinko later says that a person was “yawnng without opening her mouth, which is very hard to do. I know because I do that a lot myself when I have to sit in church and listen to those boring sermons.” [pg. 56]
Rinko is very surprised, however, when Aunt Waka shows up and is a Buddhist!
Aunt Waka was standing at my bureau with her hands clasped, and I saw she’d set up a small Buddhist altar on top of it. There were photographs of her husband and little boy beside it and a stick of incense and a dish with two cookies on it in front of the pictures.
“I was just telling my husband and little boy I’d arrived safely in America,” she told me. “I always talk to them when I pray for them.”
I felt like I’d barged in on something private and special that I had no business seeing. How strange, I thought, that Aunt Waka was a Buddhist when Mama was such an ardent Christian. What was going to happen, I wondered, when Mama took Aunt Waka to our church and made her sing, “Jesus Savior, Pilot Me,” and pray to the God who was her own special friend.
I started to back out of the room, but she told me to come in. She didn’t seem to mind if I watched her finish with her praying.
“What’re the cookies for?” I asked. I knew very well her husband and little boy couldn’t come out of the photo to eat them.
Aunt Waka smiled. “It’s just a gesture,” she said. “It makes me feel as though I’ve shared something nice with them.” [pgs. 57-58]
Rinko wondered what would happen when Mama took Aunt Waka to church. As it happens…
I guess Aunt Waka never did mind going to church with Mama every Sunday, even if it wasn’t a Buddhist temple. She just said faith was faith, whether we got it in a church or in a temple. [pgs. 127-128]
When Rinko goes to visit a friend in the hospital, Rinko thinks,
I get scared when I think about dying and about how dark and black and final it must be. Then I try to remember the Heaven they tell us about at church and think it wouldn’t be so bad if everybody ended up there and turned into angels. It’s just that sometimes I’m not sure I’d qualify. And I certainly don’t want to go to that other place. [pgs. 115-116]
Rinko’s goal in life is to become a teacher. She also has a ‘going to college’ jar, which her parents are insistent gets filled.
Rinko twice mentions Cal having a girlfriend.
Rinko tells three lies, none of which are necessary. She goes unpunished.
The bad guy uses the word ‘d—’ twice (fully spelled), while ‘gee’, ‘golly’, and ‘heck’ are each used once by the kids.
Conclusion. An okay book. It wasn’t defiling, but I personally did not find that the story line was interesting, and thus my personal opinion is that it’s not worth wading through all the cautions.
Review © 2013 Laura Verret