Although Katie is barely twelve years old when the novel ends, she has been forced by circumstances to grow up more quickly, at least in some respects, than might be expected of a girl her age. Through the passing of her sister, she has learned to come to terms with death. She has learned that not all dreams come true. She has learned that racial discrimination exists but that it can be overcome and that people should not be stereotyped according to their race. She has learned to take responsibility at home and to work to improve her school grades. She has helped her parents to deal with their grief at the loss of Lynn. She has also learned from Lynn the wonder of the world, how so many things are kira-kira, a word that means glittering in Japanese. She has developed intellectual curiosity and wonders why the world is the way it is. One morning she lies in bed and thinks about everything that has ever happened to her. “For everything in my life, I would ask, Why?” (p. 167). She also learns that for some things, such as why Lynn got sick, there are no satisfactory answers.
Exploitation of Workers
Workers at the poultry processing plant work long hours for low pay. Conditions are harsh. They are not even allowed to go to the bathroom except at scheduled times. Conditions are no better at the hatchery where Katie’s father works. The workers are tired all the time, and they have to sleep at the hatchery in one room together. They are so tired that they do not even change clothes but just get into their sleeping bags and fall asleep. Katie’s father gets only four hours sleep before it is time for the next shift.
There is tension at the plant because many of the workers are trying to join a union that will give them some bargaining power so that they can negotiate better conditions. However, the owner, Mr. Lyndon, is resisting efforts to unionize and has hired a man to bully the workers out of their plans. One such employee is known as the “thug.” Katie sees at Lynn’s funeral that one of the workers from the factory has a black eye following “union trouble,” so it is clear that Mr. Lyndon will go to extreme lengths to prevent unionization.
The theme takes a positive turn toward the end of the novel. Mrs. Takeshima, who at first opposed the joining of a union because she feared it would create trouble and she might lose her job, is converted to the cause. Up to then, she had thought Mr. Lyndon was helping her by providing her with a job. Not many jobs are available for Japanese people in Georgia. But now she realizes how helpful to the lives of the workers a union can be. The change in her thinking follows the union proposal that workers should be given three days off with pay for grief leave.
Because of the way the issue is presented, the reader is entirely on the side of the workers, who labor so hard for so little. Mr. Lyndon, the wealthy, powerful owner of both the factory and the hatchery is presented as unsympathetic in every way—Hank Garvin hates him, for example—and it is no coincidence that when Sammy gets his ankle caught in a trap, it is on Mr. Lyndon’s property. The incident suggests symbolically that Mr. Lyndon ensnares the workers. Also, at various points in the novel, Mr. Lyndon’s wealth is mentioned, and that is juxtaposed with the poverty in which many of the workers live. Mr. Lyndon’s antebellum mansion is contrasted with the cheap apartment buildings that the employees must make do with. The apartment the Takeshimas live in, for example, has peeling paint in the kitchen and mold in the bathroom.
As Japanese people, the Takeshima family experience discrimination after they head south for Georgia. When they book a room for the night in Nashville, the receptionist thinks they are Indian or Mexican and is rude and unfair to them. They must stay in one of the back rooms, and they are overcharged for it. Mr. Takeshima does not protest, and young Katie has no idea why they are being treated in this way. When they arrive in Georgia, Katie notices that there are separate places for white and black people. This is before the civil rights movement put an end to such discrimination.
When it is time for Katie to go to school, her sister Lynn warns her that some of the kids may ignore her because she is Japanese. Lynn knows that many people in the town ignore all the Japanese people simply because of their race. They think the Japanese are inferior. Katie experiences this for herself when she notices that when she and her mother run into other girls from their school with their mothers, the other mothers refuse even to acknowledge Katie’s mother. Although Katie does not realize it, the reason her mother insists on curling Katie’s hair before she goes to school is in order to mitigate the prejudice she will experience; her mother wants her to look more like an American girl.
The picture is not entirely bleak, however. There is a breakthrough when one of the popular girls at school, Amber, decides to “break ranks” and become best friends with Lynn. This shows that the divisions amongst the schoolchildren are not always along racial lines. Another example of how racial discrimination does not always dominate the way people think is the extent to which Hank Garvin goes to help Sam. Hank and his family also attend Lynn’s funeral, which shows that affection and respect can cross racial lines.
Living in Two Cultures
The Takeshima family lives between two cultures, the Japanese and the American. Naturally enough, the parents are more attuned to the Japanese culture than their children, who were born in the United States. The parents were also born in the United States but they had been sent to Japan for their education. Katie’s mother expects that one day she will be able to send Lynn and Katie to Japan so they can learn to be feminine. She is obviously more attuned to the Japanese idea of femininity than the American one, and she is surprised at how “un-Japanese” Katie and Lynn are.
The Japanese families in Chesterfield, Georgia, have evenings together where they all eat Japanese food, and they always get together at New Year, which is the biggest Japanese festival. They identify strongly with being Japanese, since they have lived there and their parents lived there, and they try to pass on to their children various aspects of Japanese thought and culture. However, Lynn and Katie grow up more as Americans than Japanese. It is not surprising that Katie, who knows little of Japan, quickly acquires a southern accent when the family moves to Georgia. Although her ethnic origin is Japanese she quickly develops American habits of thought. One incident in particular shows the difference between first- and second-generation immigrants. Katie is surprised when her aunt tells her that her uncle will never become a land surveyor because no one will hire a Japanese man for such a job. She has imbibed the American dream and believes that a person can become whatever he or she wants to become. In other words, Katie is undergoing a process that sociologists call acculturation, in which a person takes on the behavior and beliefs of the culture that they live in. It is a process many immigrants go through as they get used to their new country. The fact that the children in the novel are going to be more American than Japanese is also clear in their names: Katie, Lynn, Sammy, David, and Daniel (although Katie, Lynn, and Sammy are all given Japanese middle names).