Eyes Behind Belligerence by K.P. Kollenborn is an ambitious book about complex subjects. The Yoshimura and Hamaguchi families of Bainbridge Island, off the coast of Washington, endure the bigotry of the 1940s and are forced into the Manzanar Internment Camp, but their stories transcend any location.
Eyes Behind Belligerence is essentially a story of families and how they come to terms with loss — whether of people, life as they knew it, or the ability to make their own choices. Americans whose ancestry is not Japanese may look at Japanese-American families and see homogeneity. The book shows that the cultures within the Bainbridge Island families are diverse, though as the families move to Manzanar, with its lack of privacy and depressing environment, some aspects of their lives are forced to be more similar.
There are dozens of points of view, but the story eventually becomes that of Goro (Russell) Hamaguchi and Jimmu (Jim) Yoshimura, two very different high school boys who share anger at being interned but appear to have little else in common. They struggle to develop and maintain a friendship, and sometimes it tears so badly it is hard to imagine any recuperation. The most recurring emotions are frustration and anger, but there is humor.
I have read several books set at least in part in internment camps, but none portrays the environment as well. It does more than describe the crowding, heat, and barren quarters. The utter boredom is palpable. The book also shows that families were not simply forced into the camps, they moved more than once and splintered as some members were allowed to leave (if “sponsored”) to work in another part of the country, or were forced to move to another camp if there was friction or they refused to sign a loyalty oath. The irony of having some characters help liberate Dachau is impossible to miss.
Eyes Behind Belligerence deals with the ordinary and profound, from falling in love to standing up to bullies to trying to reconcile support of the war effort in a country that imprisons its own citizens. The book’s primary timeframe is late 1941 to 1945, though an epilogue of sorts shows how some of the main characters moved into the 1990s. (No spoilers here.)
There are a lot of characters to keep in play and Kollenborn does it well, although the many points of view are distracting at times and leave little room for discovering anything with the characters. However, Kollenborn develops her main characters very differently than one might anticipate, which keeps a reader turning the pages. And there are secrets.
A number of times emotion is shown through winking, chuckling, pinching brows, and biting lower lips. When one character has such a habit it tells you something about that person, but when many characters do these things it appears that the author is trying to convey emotion in a somewhat clumsy fashion. In Eyes Behind Belligerence, the character’s actions and words largely speak for themselves; winks are rarely necessary.
Eyes Behind Belligerence is fascinating, and it shows the World War II period from a different perspective than most American history books. It is worth four stars.