In this innovative graphic novel set in Seattle during World War II, Josh Tuininga depicts the friendship between Marco Calvo, a Sephardic Jewish American, and his neighbor Sam Akiyama, a Japanese American. Marco is an immigrant from Turkey who struggles to make a comfortable life for himself on the Pacific coast but then ultimately succeeds. Sam, meanwhile, has established himself and his family in what seems to be a secure community in Seattle’s Nihonmachi, or Japan Town. But when President Franklin Roosevelt issues Executive Order 9066, interning innocent Japanese immigrants and citizens, Marco and Sam’s paths diverge.
The novel opens with a flash-forward to Marco’s 1987 funeral in the Sephardic Bikur Holim Synagogue, where his grandson is surprised by the presence of several Japanese American guests. Subsequent chapters each begin with a date ranging from 1938 to 1945. Readers unfamiliar with the distinctive history of Sephardic immigrants to America will learn how they were marginalized, but also how they persisted in both assimilating to the dominant American culture and maintaining their own. Panels depict delicious spinach-and-cheese bolemas and incorporate the Ladino (Judeo-Spanish) language.
Marco eventually develops a successful business career, while Sam Akiyama opens a market. Both men are dedicated to their families, and both have confronted the indignities of prejudice. At this point in the story, Tuininga’s text is minimalist, and the colors of his illustrations, subdued. But after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, underlying tensions that have always existed surface abruptly. Although Marco and his family are outsiders in terms of their religion, culture, and language, they are safe. The Akiyama family, on the other hand, is forced to leave their home, business, and community because of unfounded fears about Japanese American disloyalty.
At the same time, the Calvo family is terrified about the fate of Europe’s Jews, which ultimately contributes to Marco’s conviction that he must help others facing oppression. An extended synagogue scene on the Shabbat before Passover includes lighthearted conversation among the female congregants seated in the balcony; they are focused on maintaining normal family and communal life. Gradually, as the rabbi delivers an impassioned sermon about their responsibility as Jews to stand up for anyone suffering from injustice, their talk turns to fearing for their Japanese neighbors.
Stark images of internment camps feature surveillance towers, crowded quarters, and depressed prisoners, but they also depict community institutions that defied these conditions and flourished. Even after they were freed, Japanese Americans would return to face financial losses and continued hatred. In this context, Marco’s modest actions during the war to safeguard Japanese property take on even greater meaning. The mourners at his funeral remember the life of one seemingly ordinary Seattle resident, whose Jewish identity gave him the strength to resist bigotry.
In a letter to the reader, Tuininga explains how his own family background helped him write the book. Extensive backmatter, as well as an introduction by acclaimed author Ken Mochizuki and an afterword by Professor Devin E. Naar, provide additional information.
Emily Schneider writes about literature, feminism, and culture for Tablet, The Forward, The Horn Book, and other publications, and writes about children’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Languages and Literatures.