The Journal of Ben Uchida

Book cover: 'The Journal of Ben Uchida'
Barry Denenberg
My Name is America
Sewn Hardcover
Number of pages: 
154 pages
Grade / Age level: 

This is a fictitious diary of a 12 year old boy in a Japanese internment camp in California during World War II. (The diary covers the bombing of Pearl Harbor - Dec. 7 1941 thru parts of 1943). The diary is based on letters from Internment camp survivors and other actual events from the time period.

The story helps the reader to understand certain truths about the camps and the consequences of having such camps;

Many of the prisoners, particularly the children were every bit like other Americans in their loyalties, interests and lifestyles and didn't identify with Japan at all.

The camps were a very difficult place to raise children and tended to cause a decline in morals and traditions among the people. A few examples: because the living quarters are so small (one room usually divided with a blanket to accomodate two families), the children roam fairly freely about the camp, allowing for such situations as this: the main character and another boy sneak off to try to see some "naked girls" changing for a play (they are unsuccessful). As far as traditions go, it is very sad to learn that the very traditional Japanese mothers and grandmothers are forced to wear pants because the dust and wind make dresses unmanageable.

The overall injustice of the situation is clearly portrayed as well. Before they leave for the camps, families are forced to sell nearly all of their belongings at ridiculous prices (the author does also introduce us to some kind neighbors and friends who help these families in various ways, such as storing furniture for them). Some of the fathers are taken away for a time to a separate camp because the government thinks they might have specific connections with the Japanese.

After I read the book, I was at first struck that it was very depressing. All of the bad things that happen are not alleviated by a hope in God or even a hero figure on a natural level. Ben Uchida is merely recording the way things are, rather than reflecting on them (with the exception of becoming somewhat cynical). It finally struck me that what the author has done is portray many of the major aspects of the hardships of the internment camp through the eyes of one boy and have all of the different sorts of problems occur within his close circle of friends. I believe that this is somewhat unrealistic and that the book should be read by children old enough to understand this concept. Other than that (and the objectionable incident mentioned above) it really does give the reader a sense of the significance of this terrible event in American history which - even in the politically correct climate of modern America - is largely ignored. The Historical Note section (17 pages) is quite interesting. It includes some factual information about the camps, a number of black and white photos, and a brief history of the treatment of Chinese and Japanese in America (and particularly the discriminatory laws aimed against them over the years). It is also interesting that Franklin Roosevelt (who is so admired by "the left" today) is quite fairly criticized for committing such a crime against American citizens (by Executive Order) and it is interesting that it was Ronald Reagan who attempted to make some sort of retribution (however inadequate) to the Internment Camp survivors.

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