Sponsored by:

Comment, blog & share photos

Log in | Become a member
The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, November 9, 2003

'Fire Horse Woman' blazes rough trail

THE LEGEND OF FIRE HORSE WOMAN by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston; Kensington Press, hardback, $23.

By Wanda Adams
Advertiser Books Editor

Book signing

Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston

Noon today, Borders at Ward Centre

Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston is best known as co-author of the widely respected nonfiction work "Farewell to Manzanar," about her experiences as a Japanese American internee in World War II. She co-wrote the screenplay for the Emmy Award-winning TV special based on the book and has continued to give talks and write shorter works touching on that experience.

Much of the action in this long-awaited novel is also set in Manzanar, but this is not a book about imprisonment. It's about liberation.

Three memorable females — grandmother, mother, daughter — illustrate how resourceful and spirited people (who just happen to be women, and just happen to be of Asian ethnicity) can make a place for themselves regardless of how society attempts to limit them, how events surprise them or how mixed are their joys and pains.

The book begins with Matsubara Sayo in old age, entering the chilly, dusty, wind-swept confines of Manzanar internment camp in California's high desert. Surveying the forbidding landscape, she contemplates her end and then, in the understated but life-affirming manner that characterizes her, declines to accept this fate, choosing instead to consider this sojourn behind barbed wire as yet another beginning.

Sayo is the Fire Horse Woman of the title, her birth sign considered an ill portent in Japan, causing women to be too forceful, too rebellious. Sayo spends her life proving the truth of this superstition, but doing so in such a dignified manner that she upholds the ideal of graceful Japanese womanhood even while flouting it. She begins by conspiring in a lie in order to marry well and ends by choosing the man she wants, without benefit of marriage, legalities or any social sanction.

Houston makes some plotline leaps here, and some may not believe that anyone could do all the things Sayo does, or be allowed to do them. But history makes clear that there are always people who go their own way, who through some delicate balance of social forces are allowed to be atypical of their times. Unlikely doesn't mean impossible. (Although I have to say I find the ending unlikely.)

Abandoned by her artistic, drug-addled husband in a small California town in the early 1900s, Sayo survives without becoming a prostitute, the most readily available career choice. Instead, she founds a tea house that is only half a brothel, takes a Paiute Indian labor organizer for her lover, raises his child more or less on her own and acts as onesan, older sister, to a group of Asian bachelors and disenchanted "picture brides."

Sayo's daughter, Hana, and granddaughter, Terri, are the other two legs of the character tripod and each has her own tale of self-discovery and burgeoning inner strength. Hana's is the most conventional storyline: The downtrodden, conventional wife who decides in mid-life she's worth more.

Terri's sub-plot is something relatively rare in an adult novel, an exploration of a pre-pubescent girl's viewpoint. Terri is befriended by a bored Caucasian prison guard not much older than herself and through him discovers a magical sanctuary, away from barbed wire and barracks. This relationship is unusual in popular fiction because it's one that doesn't blossom into romance or illicit passion, but rather contributes to her growth and maturity in a way that takes time to unfold.

Woven through the action of this novel is a shadow world of visions that entwines Japanese mysticism with that of Native Americans, an intriguing blend.

"Fire Horse Woman" is a pleasurable read and one that those who enjoy historical fiction (and a little mild eroticism) will swallow whole. However, it's not the most tightly knit piece of fiction or the most believable.

Press material on the book explains that it is based on the five-act kabuki dramatic form, but those reading for story probably only notice that the scenes are not chronological; they criss-cross time and space, character and viewpoint. Although not confusing (there are headings as to date and place before each chapter, allowing you to get grounded), this can be frustrating when you've just sunk pleasurably into some portion of the story.

On a number of occasions, characters leap into intimacy, not of the physical kind, but in words, sharing their problems or personal histories within a short period of acquaintance. But these are mostly people rooted in a culture known for its reticence, the layeredness of its communication and its emphasis on the unsaid. Certainly, some of the individuals are motivated by their life situations to shrug off such cultural strictures — the realization that she is free to be herself is a key to Sayo's character. Still, some of these conversations seemed false and anachronistic.

Sayo's is the character in which I was most interested, and the one in whom I most wanted to believe. Her makeup is complex, with a distinct dark side. This is a woman who braved a lie to pursue what she sees as her destiny, who sleeps with the father of her husband, who takes a lover when she is not yet divorced, and makes friends with prostitutes. But Houston focuses primarily on Sayo's romances and allows her to overcome her difficulties in almost a breezy manner. I couldn't help feeling that there should have been more struggle, more shame, anger and guilt, more sharp edges. She is, after all, a Fire Horse Woman.