The Journal of Ben Uchida: Citizen 13559, Mirror Lake Internment Camp (book)
|Title||The Journal of Ben Uchida: Citizen 13559, Mirror Lake Internment Camp|
|Series||My Name Is America|
|Original Publication Date||1999|
Chapter book for children by Barry Denenberg in the form of a journal by a young Nisei boy covering the first ten months of incarceration at the fictitious "Mirror Lake Internment Camp."
As the book begins, it is April of 1942 and Ben Uchida and his family are preparing to be taken away. His Issei father has been arrested and is interned in Missoula, Montana, leaving just twelve-year-old Ben, his fourteen-year-old sister Naomi, and their mother. After saying goodbye to his best friend Robbie, he and his family go by train to Mirror Lake, a camp located three hundred miles northeast of their San Francisco home. Once there, the Uchidas find themselves sharing a room with another family, the Tashimas: a Nisei man, his young son, and the son's Aunt Mitsuko (Mrs. Tashima and a daughter are caught somewhere in Japan). Ben's sometimes cynical journal documents many aspects of life there: the noise and lack of privacy, the inadequate schools, and inept administration. A skilled baseball player, Ben joins a block team, but his experience is marred by a teammate who fixes a game in cahoots with gamblers. The book ends abruptly in February 1943, after the loyalty questionnaire episode. A brief epilogue updates the ultimate fate of each of the main characters, while a section on "Life in America in 1942" provides background on the history of anti-Asian agitation, Executive Order 9066, and the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, along with an album of historic photographs. The book concludes with a brief profile of photographer Toyo Miyatake. The Journal of Ben Uchida was one of nineteen titles in the "My Name Is America" series issued between 1998 and 2004 by Scholastic, all fictional diaries that recount historic events through the eyes of young male protagonists.
Author and Book Background
Author Berry Denenberg (1940– ) grew up in Long Island and Binghamton, New York, and Palisades Park, New Jersey. A book buyer and publishing executive, he switched gears at age forty and began to pursue a writing career, eventually focusing on historical books for children, both fiction and non-fiction. He has published over twenty books since 1988. In addition to Ben Uchida, he has authored several other diary/journal type books for the "My Name Is America" series or the companion "Dear America" series (the latter with young female protagonists).
Though the Mirror Lake Internment Camp is fictional, it is clearly based on Manzanar. In particular, the Uchidas go directly to Mirror Lake in April of 1942, a time when Manzanar was the only camp in operation. Like nearly all who went to Manzanar, the Uchidas don't first go to an "assembly center." They also go by bus, getting to their destination on the same day, which also suggests they lived relatively close Manzanar. A fold-out photograph of Manzanar with key areas labeled is also included at the end of the book. Denenberg told interviewers Richard F. Abrahamson and Linda M. Pavonetti that he originally intended to set the book there, but decided to make it a fictional camp because he wanted to "bring in aspects that were found at many camps." Indeed other elements—the name and the stated location of the camp—conform more closely to the Tule Lake, California, camp.
Historical Accuracy and Reception
Though the camp and the characters are fictional—and the events are being described by a twelve to thirteen year old narrator—there are a few historical elements worth noting that don't conform to what would have happened to a similar family in real life. For one thing, as prewar residents of the San Francisco area, the Uchidas would almost certainly have been sent to the Topaz, Utah, camp, via the Tanforan Assembly Center. The Uchidas live in Block B in Mirror Lake, and other blocks are also referred to by letter. In the actual War Relocation Authority camps such as Manzanar, the blocks were numbered, since there were more of them than there are letters in nearly every camp (36 residential blocks in Manzanar, for instance). In noting that Mr. Tashima's appointment as a block manager, Ben states that "only American citizens" can be block managers (page 49); while Issei were prohibited initially from holding electoral office in the camps, they were allowed to be block managers, and in Manzanar specifically, most were Issei or Kibei. Mirror Lake is surrounded by an electric fence (noted on pages 26 and 119); none of the WRA camps had such fencesA draconian curfew and a ban of meetings are suddenly instituted at Mirror Lake in September 1942, which also did not happen in the actual camps except in particular crisis situations. There is also a fatal shooting of the Uchidas' friend and neighbor Mr. Watanabe in October 1942; this is very loosely based on the shooting of Shoichi James Okamoto in Tule Lake in May 1944.
The Journal of Ben Uchida was turned into a play by playwright Naomi Iizuka. Citizen 13559 premiered at Kennedy Center Family Theater in March 2006.
The Journal of Ben Uchida was not widely reviewed in either book trade or educational publications, with only brief positive reviews appearing in Childhood Education and Booklist. In the latter, reviewer Todd Morning praises the book for not being "polemical," writing that Ben "comes across as a real kid, coping with anger, resentment, confusion, and fear."
For More Information
Publisher website, with links to discussion guide and other resources: http://www.scholastic.com/teachers/book/journal-ben-uchida.
- There was a project to electrify fences at Minidoka in November 1942 "to prevent cutting of wires and uprooting of fence posts"; however, this project—which was not authorized by either the army or WRA—was aborted after a brief furor. See Minidoka Irrigator, Nov. 14, 1942, 1.
- Jeanie Burnett, Childhood Education 76.3 (Spring 2000), 173; Todd Morning, Booklist, Dec. 15, 1999, 784.