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July 2016 BOOKLIST
Titles similar to Grandfather's Journey
Say’s stunning immigration story is a version of the American dream that includes adventure and discovery but no sense of arrival. He captures our restlessness, our homesickness, wherever we are. With the particulars of own family story, he universalizes everyone’s quest for home, and he finds not one place but many, connection and also discontent. The journey isn’t a straight line, but more like a series of widening circles, full of surprising twists and loops.
As in the best children’s books, the plain, understated words have the intensity of poetry. The watercolor paintings frame so much story and emotion that they break your heart. Looking at the people in this book is like turning the pages of a family photo album, the formal arrangements and stiff poses show love and distance, longing and mystery, beneath such elemental rites as marriage, leaving, and return.
The story starts off as cheery adventure. Say’s grandfather leaves Japan as a young man on an astonishing journey to the New World. He explores all kinds of places and meets all kinds of people and never thinks of returning home. The huge cities “bewildered yet excited him.” He settles in California because he loves the light and the mountains and the lonely seacoast. He marries his childhood sweetheart from his village in Japan and brings her to the new country, and they have a child. But then as his daughter grows up (we see her posing stiffly with a blonde doll in a carriage), he begins to think about his own childhood and longs to go back. “He could not forget. Finally, when his daughter was nearly grown, he could wait no more. He took his family and returned to his homeland.”
The village is as he remembered it, and he laughs with his old friends. But his American daughter doesn’t fit in the traditional culture. She’s an outsider in the Japanese village in her Western hat and purse, as awkward as her father was when he first left home. They move to a city in Japan; she marries, and her son, Allen Say, is born. His grandfather tells him many stories about California and longs to see it again. But the war comes, described through the child’s eyes (“Bombs fell from the sky and scattered our lives like leaves in a storm”): a single painting shows a group of refugees in a leveled city. Grandfather dies without seeing California again. But when his boy is nearly grown, he leaves home and goes to see the place his grandfather had told him about, and he stays in the U.S. and has a daughter, just as his grandfather did.
But he says, “I can not still the longing in my heart.” Like his grandfather, he has to return to Japan now and then. And as soon as he is in one country, “he is homesick for the other.”
The pictures echo each other and connect the generations and their places. Say’s grandfather in tie and cardigan staring out the window in San Francisco, remembering the mountains and rivers of home, is like a self-portrait of Allen Say today. The landscapes evoke a variety of styles: from the mountain photography of Ansel Adams to the Japanese pastoral and the romantic French impressionists. The cover picture of the young traveler in his first too-large European clothes, clutching his bowler hat, has the sturdiness and poignancy of Chaplin. Allen Say has traveled and found riches everywhere. He captures what the Jewish American writer Irving Howe calls an “eager restlessness.”
The book is a natural companion to Say’s other autobiographical picture book, Tree of Cranes (1991), about his childhood in Japan and his mother remembering her childhood Christmas in California. Both are books to share across generations and in oral history projects with older students. Every child who’s pored over strange old family pictures or heard stories of “back home” will relate to this, whether home was across the border or far across the sea or a midwestern farm. The story has special immediacy for immigrants, like me. It’s also about all those who long for where they came from, even while they know they can’t go home again.
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