Repentance tells the story of one Japanese American family processing the trauma of internment and combat during World War II. Daniel Tokunaga is a successful heart surgeon estranged from his father Ray, a veteran of the 442nd Regiment composed entirely of nisei soldiers. When Daniel starts cleaning out his aging parents’ home, he discovers discrepancies in the family history he thought he knew. Marriage and birth dates that don’t line up. Records of checks sent to foreign countries. Then the U.S. government starts asking questions about Ray’s military service, but he doesn’t want to talk to anyone.
Daniel’s quest for answers takes him from Pennsylvania to southern California to France, all against a backdrop of his own family life as his children go to college and his marriage suffers from his intense surgical workload. Alternating with Daniel’s story in the present day are flashbacks to his father’s experience with the 442nd in the French countryside. As Daniel finally unearths his parents’ past, he is able to make new choices for his own family’s future.
Repentance explores the historically persistent theme of Asian Americans as the perpetual foreigner. Executive Order 9066 forced the internment of thousands of Japanese descendants, many of whom were birthright U.S. citizens, in remote camps ostensibly to prevent Japanese espionage and collusion. The 442nd Regimental Combat Team was formed from volunteers of the Hawaii National Guard, like Daniel’s father Ray, and then volunteers from mainland internment camps, like Ray’s best friend Hiro.
Having grown up with a much smaller Japanese American community, Hiro talks about facing discrimination from white people and disapproval from issei elders for fighting for a country that treated them like prisoners. Hiro expresses his dilemma: “…the choice was, go back to Japan or stay in America. I could never live in Japan. I don’t even speak the language. But I knew if I was going to stay I’d need to prove to other Americans that we were just as good as them.”
To this day, many Asian Americans, including myself, feel like perpetual outsiders, not just in comparison to white Americans but even within POC communities. We aren’t white, we aren’t black. As early generation descendants of immigrants, we are caught between the culture of our ancestors and the culture of our home.
Much like The Grace of Kings, though on a much more personal and immediate level, Repentance uses fiction to fill the gaps of Asian American history and culture. While many combat veterans do not like talking about their wartime experiences, I wonder if the stories of the 442nd Regiment are particularly rare because of the Asian cultural tendency toward reticence, as well as the humiliation endured by Japanese Americans at the hands of their own government. I certainly wouldn’t expect mainstream American media to tell those stories widely or particularly accurately…Japanese internment usually gets a day or two of coverage in grade school history classes, and I had never heard of the 442nd at all. I’m very glad Lam chose to write about this lesser-known contribution of Asian Americans.
If you enjoy historical novels with strong character development and deeply personal plot lines, such as Diamond Head or Lisa See’s historical fiction, you will like Repentance. Other works about the Japanese American experience during World War II include the memoir Farewell to Manzanar and the novel Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet.
To learn more about Repentance and Lam’s other books, visit www.AndrewLamMD.com
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Featured image by Pete Souza, courtesy of Obama White House Archives.