Why She Left Us (book)

Title Why She Left Us
Genre Fiction
Author Rahna Reiko Rizzuto
Original Publisher HarperCollins
Original Publication Date 1999
Pages 295 pages
ISBN 0060193700 9780060193706
WorldCat Link http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/40489331

A 1999 novel by Rahna Reiko Rizzuto that follows the Okada family from the 1920s to the 1990s and includes their incarceration at the Santa Anita Assembly Center and Amache as well as the experiences of two Nisei who serve in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. The novel is structured as a series of vignettes told from the points of view of four characters. Why She Left Us was honored with an American Book Award in 2000.

Author Rahna Reiko Rizzuto was born and and raised in Hawai'i, growing up the Big Island, the daughter of Japanese American mother and Caucasian father. She attended Columbia University, graduating with a degree in astrophysics. Why She Left Us was inspired by Rizzuto's discovery of her own family's wartime incarceration and "by a pilgrimage I made to the internment camp where my mother and her family lived during World War II," she writes in the book's acknowledgements. She adds that "it was informed by many generous Japanese Americans who shared their stories with me."[1] She subsequently authored an acclaimed memoir, Hiroshima in the Morning (New York: The Feminist Press, 2010) and has published essays and short stories in many print and online publications including the Los Angeles Times, Salon.com, and Mothers Who Think. She teaches creative writing at Goddard College in Plainfield, Vermont.

Why She Left Us tells the multigenerational story of the Okada family spanning their prewar years as California farmers, their wartime incarceration in the Santa Anita Assembly Center and at Amache, and the postwar lives of the family members in Los Angeles and in Hawai'i. The focus of the novel is on Emi, a Nisei who bears two children out of wedlock—one just prior to the war, the other born in a horse stall at Santa Anita—putting the first up for adoption and later refusing to care for him after her mother takes him back from the adoptive family. The story is told in twenty-four chapters, each a vignette of the family's life from the 1920 to 1990 and from the point of view of one of four characters, all of whom only know part of the story: Jack, Emi's younger brother, physically crippled from his stint in the 442nd; Eric, the son left behind who pines for his mother as a child and become a petty criminal as a young adult; Mariko, the daughter Emi chose to raise who discovers the secrets in her family history through applying for redress after the Civil Liberties Act of 1988; and Kaori, Emi's Issei mother, who speaks to Mariko in the first person from beyond the grave.

Reviews were almost uniformly positive, with reviewers noting the "tensile, vigorous prose, as unsparing as the story she tells" and calling it a "remarkable " and "moving first novel" even the lone negative review ("The story makes heroic efforts to come alive and engage but, fine prose aside, just doesn't") calls it "well-crafted."[2] Several reviewers note the novel's complicated structure, with Sara Saffian largely positive review in the New York Times Book Review concludes that "reading the book is akin to assembling a jigsaw puzzle as the picture gradually emerges. But the multiple voices render the narrative choppy, at odds with the simple, lyrical beauty of the language itself..."[3]

In an article on successful first novelists, Library Journal notes that "Sparked by grassroots enthusiasm, this book went into a second printing and made the San Francisco Chronicle and Denver Post best sellers lists."[4] It was named one of the best books of 1999 by the Honolulu Advertiser and in 2000, Why She Left Us was named one of seventeen recipients of the American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation.[5]

Authored by Brian Niiya, Densho

For More Information

Rizzuto, Rahna Reiko. Why She Left Us: A Novel. New York: HarperCollins, 1999. 295 pages.


Anderson, Beth E. Library Journal, July 1999, 135–36.

Kirkus Reviews, July 15, 1999, 1076–77.

Pearl, Nancy, Booklist, August 1999, 2028.

Publishers Weekly, June 14, 1999, 47–48.

Rozzo, Mark, Los Angeles Times Book Review, September 26, 1999, 10.

Saffian, Sarah, New York Times Book Review, August 29, 1999, 21.


Author's website: http://www.r3reiko.com/.

Goddard College site: http://www.goddard.edu/people/rahna-reiko-rizzuto-ba.

Publisher's page: http://www.harpercollins.com.au/books/Why-Left-Us-Rahna-Reiko-Rizzuto/.


  1. Rahna Reiko Rizzuto, Why She Left Us: A Novel (New York: HarperCollins, 1999), vii.
  2. Publishers Weekly, June 14, 1999, 47; Beth E. Anderson, Library Journal, July 1999, 136; Nancy Pearl, Booklist, Aug. 1999, 2028; Kirkus Reviews, July 15, 1999, 1077.
  3. Mark Rozzo, Los Angeles Times Book Review, Sept. 26, 1999, 10; Sarah Saffian, New York Times Book Review, August 29, 1999, 21.
  4. Barbara Hoffert with Ann Burns, "Booming Business," Library Journal, March 15, 2000, 54.
  5. "The American Book Awards / Before Columbus Foundation" on the American Booksellers Association website, accessed on March 2, 2013 at http://www.bookweb.org/btw/awards/The-American-Book-Awards---Before-Columbus-Foundation.html.