Review: Dear Miss Breed, Joanne Oppenheim
Publication Date: February 1, 2006
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Spoilers are present in this review.
Many people might not be aware that during World War II, the American government made a decision that seemed more like the actions of Nazi Germany: separating families and removing civil rights from a group of individuals, most of whom were American citizens. The reason for these actions against these people? The color of their skin and the shape of their eyes.
From 1942 through 1945, Japanese Americans were "interned" in camps scattered across the Western United States. Prompted by widespread racism and hysteria in a post-Pearl Harbor environment, more than a hundred thousand Japanese Americans, many of whom by their birth were American citizens, were forced to leave their homes. They suffered from poor housing, ill-prepared food, inadequate education and health care, on top of the sacrifices that were made by most Americans during World War II. Furthermore, they were vilified, in newspapers, magazines, and in their interactions with others.
Yet there were people who believed that Japanese Americans were not being held in internment camps for their own protection, but were being imprisoned due to their race. And these people worked to make the lives of Japanese Americans better. One of these people was Clara E. Breed, a children's librarian in San Diego, California. She knew many Japanese American children, and when they were sent to the camps, she began a correspondence with many of the children who had come to the library. Soon, books, candy, craft materials, and best of all, letters, were flowing from Miss Breed to the children of the Poston camp, located near Parker, Arizona. In return, the children wrote to Miss Breed, thanking her for her letters and her gifts, talking about life in camp, and wondering what their future held.
Gradually, the camps began to empty out, until they were closed during 1945-1946. Japanese Americans were scattered across the United States; families gradually came back together, and many returned to California, where the bulk of Japanese Americans had lived prior to the war. The kindness of Miss Breed lived in the memories of "her children," even when those children, now adults, did not discuss their experiences during the war with their own children. It is only with events such as the early 1980s testimony from Japanese Americans that we are starting to learn more about their experiences during World War II.
I've been interested in the Japanese experience during World War II ever since I read Farewell to Manzanar. Published in 1972, this memoir is now a near-standard in many schools, and brings to life the way that the internment camps profoundly altered the culture and attitudes of Japanese Americans. I was hopeful that Dear Miss Breed would have a similar affect on its readers. Plus, the librarian angle roused my interest.
However, I doubt that Dear Miss Breed will gain the same reputation as Farewell to Manzanar or other books on the Japanese American internment. First off, it's too long, even for young adult readers. There's almost too much information--not just from the children's letters, but testimony from Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, Eleanor Roosevelt's syndicated newspaper column, reminiscences by the now-adult children and their descendants . . . it's a worthy project to provide a comprehensive look at this story, but it's too much for a book geared towards young adults, in my opinion.
Yet this is a minor flaw, compared to what I feel is the major drawback to this book: poor writing, especially in dealing with a historical subject. The book contains only the children's letters to Miss Breed; due to the ravages of time, only one letter from Miss Breed is known to exist. When you perform historical research, you must be careful not to put words into people's mouths. Oppenheim, unfortunately, sprinkles statements like "She worried about Katherine" throughout the book, when we have no information to say one way or the other what Clara Breed's actual thoughts and feelings were. Of course, we infer that she did worry about the children in the Poston camp: Clara Breed, based on her other actions, was sincerely and completely devoted to "her children." But we don't really know what she felt, and it's unwise for anyone to speculate.
Beyond the problems with the historical aspects, there were also problems in the writing: repetition and lack of clarity in certain sections are problems throughout the book. Additionally, it was frustrating to be pulled out of the story of the children's lives with discussion of Clara Breed's professional concerns. Although Oppenheim says in her afterword that she wrote her book to inspire librarians (a worthy goal that I can't fault), it puts in an extraneous subplot to a story that has so much to teach and share with today's children and young adults.
There is wonderful information presented in this book. The stories of these children are told in their own words, and they're wonderful stories, full of determination, courage, and gratitude. If this book had been made shorter, and written more with children and young adults in mind, I think it would serve as a great tool for teachers. As it is, I believe that it'll find more success with librarians and adults than with children or teens.
If you're not familiar with the Japanese American internment, I would recommend Farewell to Manzanar, obviously, as a first step. There's also several other books that have been published about this period, such as Remembering Manzanar: Life in a Japanese Relocation Camp and Journey to Topaz for children and young adults. For adults, there are works such as Only What We Could Carry: The Japanese American Internment Experience and Looking Like The Enemy: My Story of Imprisonment in Japanese American Internment Camps.