It is because of the war, Mary
The subject of the Japanese internment camps during WWII is a personal issue for me. Being married to a Japanese woman, I realize that if we had been alive at that time it would have been my wife and children being put onto buses and being forced into isolated desert camps.
Which is why I was so looking forward to “Mr. Hiroshi’s Garden.” A children’s book is a nice way to teach about this inherently sad subject, but to do so from a promise of hope for a better future rather than just feeling bad about things that happened in the past.
Originally published as “Flags” in 1999, “Mr. Hiroshi’s Garden” has been republished in a softcover format, preserving the original text and illustrations. The story is by Maxine Trottier, and the illustrations are by Paul Morin, who did full oil paintings on canvas.
The story is a very simple one, beginning with the girl Mary spending the summer at her Grandmother’s house near the Pacific ocean. A prairie girl, it was Mary’s first time away from the flatlands she knew and into the mountainous wonder of the Pacific Northwest. There she discovers a beautiful garden unlike any she has ever known, a garden make of carefully patterned rocks instead of flowers, and a pond filled with red and white fish. She becomes friends with the owner of the house, Mr. Hiroshi, who teaches her how to feed the fish and rake the pebbles. But Mary’s grandmother is worried, because she has read in the paper that Japanese people are being gathered together to send to camps. She hopes they will not take Mr. Hiroshi, who was born and raised in Canada and has never even been to Japan, but eventually the buses come for him to, and all he can do is to sadly ask Mary to feed his fish and watch his garden until he returns. But Mr. Hiroshi never returns.
The story is told in very easy language, with at most a paragraph or two per page. Yet even in these few words I felt Maxine Trottier was able to convey the depth of the relationship, and the feelings behind the words. One of my favorite scenes was when Grandmother and Mary release Mr. Hiroshi’s fish back into the river, and Mary wonders if they will be able to swim back to Japan.
The illustrations I must confess I did not enjoy as much as the story. The style preserves the grain of the canvas, which is nice, but can add some odd textures to certain scenes. His use of color is bright to the point of being gaudy, which works beautifully in some scenes like the illustration on the cover but less so in others. There is one painting that is a close-up of Grandmother’s face that is almost ghastly and gave me a shock. I was also disappointed in the pictures of the garden itself. I have spent time in many Japanese gardens, and I don’t think Morin’s paintings capture the quiet beauty. He does, however, paint fish very well.
The setting for “Mr. Hiroshi’s Garden” is in Canada, but this has almost no impact on the story and the same heart-breaking story could have (and probably did) happen in innumerable places. In fact, I was surprised at the Canadian setting, because I always thought that the Japanese Internment Camps were a particularly American evil, and I didn’t know that Canada had done the same.