City in the Sun (book)


Title City in the Sun
Author Karon Kehoe
Original Publisher Dodd, Mead & Company
Original Publication Date 1946
Pages 269
WorldCat Link https://www.worldcat.org/title/city-in-the-sun/oclc/1262792

1946 novel by Karon Kehoe that represented the first full-length work of adult fiction to dramatize Japanese American confinement.

Background of Novel

The project that was to become City in the Sun grew out of the wartime experience of its author. In 1942, Karon Kehoe, a 23-year-old native of Detroit, moved to Gila River with her then-lover, Dr. Monika Kehoe. Both in tribute to her lover and because she did not much like her own birth name, Karon had legally changed her family name to Kehoe the previous year after the two became a couple. Since they had the same last name, they passed themselves off as half-sisters, and were able to live together in camp without attracting scrutiny. Monika Kehoe was ultimately appointed head of Adult Education. Karon was engaged as a switchboard operator and secretary to the chief of internal security, before transferring to the Adult Education Department in December 1943. In 1944, the two Kehoes moved to New York, where Monika had secured a position at Brooklyn College. They were joined by a teenaged Nisei, Kenneth Masaichi Shimizu, whom Monika agreed to sponsor so that he could leave camp. Shortly afterwards, however, the two Kehoes separated, and Karon enrolled at Hunter College.

Once out of camp, Karon Kehoe sought to document the camp experience as a means of protest—she later described herself as "[I]ncensed at her fellow Americans for permitting such atrocities to be established here while we were sending their sons to fight." While she initially waited for a Japanese American author to write on the subject, as she did not feel qualified to write as an outsider, when no work by former inmates appeared she felt "angered into writing" a book.[1] Using the notes that she had put together at Gila River on her observations of camp life, she threw herself into writing a fictionalized account of the experience, using a family story as framework. In early 1945, Kehoe submitted a manuscript for the Dodd, Mead Intercollegiate Literary Fellowship Prize. She won a fellowship, and took a one-term leave from school to complete the manuscript. The completed novel was put out by Dodd-Mead in late 1946.

Synopsis and Themes

City in the Sun is a sympathetic account of the traumatic impact of confinement on a Japanese American family, the Matsukis. Katsuji Matsuki, a YMCA secretary and New York University graduate, lives in Pasadena with his wife Tsuyo and their son, Hiroto Charles "Coke" Matsuki. Their world is shattered after Pearl Harbor. Katsuji is arrested by the FBI and interned in Montana. Soon afterwards, the family home is ransacked and pillaged by a mob. Coke and Tsuyo are sent to the assembly center at the "Santa Ynez" racetrack (based on Santa Anita), where they are housed in an abandoned horse stall, and then to the "Maricopa" camp (a stand-in for Gila River) in Arizona. Tsuyo manages to adapt to life there by helping teach an English class for Issei. In contrast, Coke is demoralized by the camp environment and becomes hostile and unmanageable. Ultimately Tsuyo persuades Dr. Kathleen Arnold, the departing director of the camp's adult education program (a character clearly based on Monika Kehoe), to take Coke with her out of camp until his family can resettle. After bringing the boy to Brooklyn, however, Dr. Arnold dumps him at her sister's house, where he is so miserable that he runs away. The book ends with Matsuki and Tsuyo, who have been reunited, arriving to take Coke along to an uncertain new life in Massachusetts.

Much of Kehoe's book is taken up by a series of subplots that explore the travails of various inmates amid the heat, dust, desolation and boredom of camp life. In parallel, she depicts the plight of white War Relocation Authority staff, with their complicated interpersonal relationships and love lives.

One brief but noteworthy aspect of City in the Sun is the author's use of homoeroticism, a daring theme for the book's time period, to illustrate the demoralization of her adolescent protagonist. In one scene, Coke has a clandestine nighttime meeting with members of a teenage gang, whose leaders order him to strip and step into the shower room with them:

Coke swallowed. Something thick and pounding was pushing against his eardrums and his temples. His thoughts blurred. Lots of words swirled around in his mind, words he'd seen on fences and on the walls of toilets. Words he wasn't supposed to know; in fact, some words he hadn't known he did know.[2]

Although they are interrupted before there is any actual contact, another passage set shortly afterwards indicates that some sort of illicit sexual relationship has indeed ensued, taking place in clandestine rendezvous:

Coke's days were filled with suspense and uncertainty, his nights riddled with fear and excitement. There were a few bad times—that first night had been the worst. Shame, in great scorching sheets, had alternated with frozen numbness in dread of discovery. And always pricking him when he was most ashamed, most afraid, was curiosity about the new experience that had been opened to him. As the visits to the shower changed to visits back to the hospital, between school buildings where the shadows lay thickest, curiosity changed to pleasure, pleasure to habit and with habit came callousness of conscience and dimunition in the intensity of conscious conflict.[3]

Critical Reaction

City in the Sun received widespread attention and generally positive reviews, though more for its sociological content and message than literary value. The Los Angeles Times, which had beaten the drum for mass removal during 1942, praised the book as "thoughtful, sincere, and honest." Critic Irene Ellwood asserted that a more experienced writer could have made the work into a powerful and tragic novel. Nonetheless, she recognized the "authoritative" background of the story and conceded, "However the reader feels about this subject of evacuation and concentration centers, much that is true has to be admitted here."[4] The Mansfield (Ohio) News-Journal added that the author "paints with deep understanding the variegated Japanese Americans confined in a relocation center...The reader feels the helpless waiting and understands the tense drama of pride and frustration, hate and love in the heart of the desert city."[5] The New York Times enthusiastically praised the author for her "outraged sympathy," while Common Ground admired her ability to project into the minds of her Japanese American subjects.[6] A review in the left-wing magazine New Masses praised the author for her unsparing portrait of the brutal treatment of Japanese Americans, but complained that she had not connected it with the plight of other American minorities.[7]

The book attracted an enthusiastic response from Japanese American reviewers. Guyo Tajiri produced an admiring column in The Pacific Citizen[8], while Miné Okubo, whose memoir Citizen 13660 was released the same month, marveled that Kehoe had succeeded in presenting a true–to-life portrait that resonated with what she herself had gone through: "Parts of the story made me cry, parts made me chuckle, and parts made me howl with delighted recognition of center types and parallel situations."[9]

Little of Karon Kehoe's later life is publicly recorded. In the 1950s she lived in New York, where she was an editor at a women's magazine. In the 1970s, she worked as a high school teacher in Natick, Massachusetts. She never wrote another published novel, and does not seem to have continued her interest in equal treatment for Japanese Americans. By the time of her death in 2011, her early work was all but forgotten.

Authored by Greg Robinson, Université du Québec À Montréal

For More Information

Kehoe, Karon. City in the Sun. New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1946

Robinson, Greg. "The Great Unknown and the Unknown Great: Queer Non-Nikkei Figures in Japanese American History (Part III)." Nichi Bei Weekly, May 1, 2014.

Footnotes

  1. Everett James Starr, "Anger Over Evacuation Led to Writing Novel About WRA Camp, Declares Karon Kehoe," Pacific Citizen, Dec. 28, 1946, 3, accessed on Aug. 10, 2015 at http://www.pacificcitizen.org/digitalarchives/assets/images/full/PCN_19461228_003.jpg
  2. Karon Kehoe, City in the Sun (New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1946), 124.
  3. Kehoe, City in the Sun, 132.
  4. Irene Ellwood, "Plight of Japanese Here in Wartime Dramatized," Los Angeles Times, Dec. 29, 1946, C4.
  5. "Roberts Turns Out New Story," Mansfield News-Journal, Jan. 5, 1947, 26.
  6. "Relocation Center: CITY IN THE SUN," New York Times, Feb. 9, 1947, BR22; Henry C. Tracy, "The American Scene in Fiction," Common Ground, Spring 1947, 112, accessed on Aug. 10, 2015 at http://www.unz.org/Pub/CommonGround-1947q1-00111.
  7. Charles Dwoskin, "Plot," The New Masses, Jan. 14, 1947, 27-28.
  8. M.O.T. [Marion Okagaki Tajiri], "Karen Kehoe's 'City in the Sun'," Pacific Citizen, Dec. 7, 1946, 5, accessed on Aug. 10, 2015 at http://www.pacificcitizen.org/digitalarchives/assets/images/full/PCN_19461207_005.jpg
  9. Miné Okubo, "Relocation City, Arizona, " The Saturday Review, Mar. 8, 1947, 30, accessed on Aug. 10, 2015 at http://www.unz.org/Pub/SaturdayRev-1947mar08-00030.