In a personal interview with author J. Torres, he explained that as a young man he was not aware of Canada’s response to the attack on Pearl Harbor. It was not a subject taught in schools, so it came to him as a surprise that there were Japanese internment camps situated in this country. He knew that this was a story he wanted to tell and spent over a decade thinking about how he could tell it for young readers before realizing that family dynamics intertwining with history was the natural direction for his tale. “There are a lot of stories that never got told about Canadians, especially Asian Canadians,” and the time to tell them is now, especially when the world is witnessing repeats of this type of historical response and behavior. Torres stated several times that if we still haven’t learned it is obviously because we don’t know how this affects people. This is why this story is so important to him and to illustrator David Namisato.
The story is told through the eyes of Sandy Saito, a young boy living with his family on the west coast of Canada. He enjoys reading comic books and adores baseball, following the Vancouver Asahi team* with great fervor. Their loss in the 1941 semifinals is not only devastating to the Japanese Canadian baseball fans, but it is also thought to be a bad omen. By the end of that year, the losses to Sandy and his family and friends are even more devastating. He is bewildered at the changes of perception by his former friends and neighbours, the curfews that are imposed on the Japanese Canadians after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, which culminated in their removal to isolated and primitive internment camps. His parents, especially his mother, try to maintain a sense of normalcy for Sandy and his brother, but with his father, a medical doctor, sent elsewhere to where he was needed more, there is little that is predictable or stable. Based on the true experiences of Japanese Canadians and the Vancouver Asahi team, the graphic novel offers insight into how their lives were affected by government action.
While the story is based on historical research and interviews conducted by both Torres and Namisato, the Saito family members and the interment camp are composites conceived by the two creators. The story is told through the child’s point of view, both colouring and erasing some of the more troubling aspects of the camp and overall treatment of these Canadian citizens. After hearing David Suzuki, the Canadian scientist and environmental activist, speak about his initial response to his encounters in the internment camps as attending summer camp, Torres engendered the same type of experience for Sandy and the other children in the camp. There is a sense of freedom and the pleasure of baseball and other games—at least until winter makes itself known to a community housed in shacks without any insulation or conveniences. The arrival of a tuberculosis epidemic in the camp provides a turning point for the story and Sandy’s relationship with his father. The continuous thread of baseball and the idea of team efforts permeates the story and Sandy’s coming-of-age. The story leaves the reader with hope, but also with unanswered questions. While some reviewers are negative about the perceived abrupt ending, Torres explained that it was intentional, as he wanted the readers to seek out the answers to “what happened next”. In our discussion, Torres asserted that learning about other people’s stories helps with empathy and fulfils a need to emerge from one’s own little bubble where everyone else outside of the bubble is considered “the other.” While his major focus is telling an entertaining story for his readers, it is a definite bonus if he can educate and encourage reading. This was, he stated, one of his rationales for ending the story where he did.
The fact that tuberculosis in the camps was rampant was something Torres was not aware of until he began researching the history of the camps. He speculated that if he was writing the book now, with the Covid pandemic being so prevalent, he might have developed this part of the story more. Nevertheless, it is one more element that can be raised in discussions of the graphic novel in reading circles. There are so many thematic and social issues such as inclusion, differences, racism, and diversity within the story, with strong links to social studies and history lessons for Canadians and beyond. In aid of further research, the author has included a list of resources and an afterword by Canadian author Susan Aihoshi offering supplementary background information regarding interment camps.
Torres was exuberant in his praise for David Namisato’s illustrations for his story. Long-time friends, he had always wanted to work with him and had pictured Namisato’s manga art style for the project from the onset. Namisato’s captivating sepia-toned illustrations effectively capture the settings, the emotional struggles and disorientation in the faces of the characters as they navigate their new reality, and the joy of baseball. The layouts and perspectives within the panels complement and extend the story offering, again, additional discussion points. This reader, in fact, particularly enjoyed the clean and detailed art work.
I thank J. Torres very much for his time in talking with me. We discussed several other topics such as gendered reading (neither one of us agree with it, which made that a short conversation) and first-person narration. We also touched about provocative topics such as reluctant readers, cultural appropriation, and the lack of critical thinking. Happily, we were in total agreement with the importance of well written historical fiction and with encouraging people of any age to read critically and with great joy.
I highly recommend Stealing Home for baseball fans, people interested in Canadian history, World War II history, especially in North America, and for those interested in family relationships. It should be in school and public libraries everywhere as well as incorporated in classroom reading lists.
*The Asahi, a Japanese Canadian baseball club in Vancouver (1914–42) was one of the city’s most dominant amateur teams, winning multiple league titles in Vancouver and along the Northwest Coast. In 1942, the team was disbanded when its members were among the 22,000 Japanese Canadians who were interned by the federal government. The Asahi were inducted into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in 2003 and the British Columbia Sports Hall of Fame in 2005. https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/vancouver-asahi
By J. Torres
Art by David Namisato
Kids Can Press, 2021
Publisher Age Rating: 8-12
NFNT Age Recommendation: Middle Grade (7-11), Tween (10-13)
Creator Representation: Japanese-Canadian, Filipinx-Canadian