Kiyo’s Story: A Sacramento memoir of the internment camps

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The early pages—save for a brief prologue—of Sacramento resident Kiyo Sato’s memoir is akin to the Laura Ingalls Wilder books, a classic chronicle of loving family life in a simpler time. In Kiyo’s Story, winner of the 2008 William Saroyan International Prize for nonfiction, Sato meticulously details her childhood in the 1920s and ’30s, the daughter of a strawberry farmer in an agricultural area on the far east side of Sacramento. She recounts the mundane with a lyrical style: “I don’t know when I became aware of the world around me. I slip off my zori straw slippers and feel the soft spring grass under my feet. Sometimes I wander away from the strawberry field to the puddles in the neighboring property to pick tiny pink flowers.”

Haikulike passages such as the one above weave such a spell that, upon arriving at a chapter titled “The Reign of Terror,” it’s a jolt to realize that this is, after all, a memoir of an internment-camp survivor.

Pearl Harbor changed everything for the Sato family. The author skillfully heightens the suspense as the noose is tightened around the Japanese community. With few exceptions, the whites in the book conduct themselves shamefully, and Sato is forced to quit her studies at Sacramento Community College. Soon, her family is ordered to report to the trains that will carry them away from everything they know.

Sato’s family was first taken to a camp near Fresno, where conditions were primitive but tolerable. There was no privacy, and again the author’s attention to specifics about subjects such as latrine conditions is an understated way to illustrate the injustice that her family suffered. After a short time at this camp, the internees are notified that they are to travel to their permanent “relocation center.” They are taken to the Poston War Relocation Center on the Colorado River Indian Reservation in Arizona.

Sato vividly describes the stifling heat and choking red dust. She muses that a columnist for The Sacramento Union who said that the way to treat the Japanese was to “throw them out in the desert, and let them become like the skulls of cattle” is getting his wish fulfilled.

With deep reverence for her parents that resonates throughout her story, Sato relates how they held the family together, using “gaman” (perseverance) as a mantra for strength. It is also quite touching to learn how the internees cooperated to improve their conditions by growing gardens and even continuing cultural traditions such as flower-arranging contests. The camps were kept spotlessly clean and crime free.

There is much more to Kiyo’s Story. Some of the most poignant moments come after the war, when the family returns to Sacramento to try to reclaim what had been so wrenchingly ripped away with Executive Order 9066. Sato accepts that a white family has been living on her farm with stoicism, but this reader wanted to tear the book in half with anger.

For Sacramentans, a frisson is added when something local is referenced—such as when Sato’s father sees a “No Japs Allowed” sign in Auburn, or when she buys her schoolbooks at Beer’s Books—but this book will have wide appeal for all. Although it is sophisticated enough for adults, the plain language and Sato’s young age during her internment makes it an ideal teaching tool for young adults. Kiyo’s Story is unforgettable.