12. A non-fiction book: Forgiveness: A Gift from My Grandparents by Mark Sakamoto
List Progress: 6/30
“If you saw a movie that was like real life
You’d be like, “What the hell was that movie about?
It was really all over the place.”
Life doesn’t make narrative sense”
-”The End of the Movie”, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend
Canadian writer and lawyer Mark Sakamoto’s maternal grandfather was a white Canadian soldier in WWII who was captured and held as a prisoner of war in Japan. During those same years, his paternal grandparents were Japanese-Canadians being forced out of their homes in Vancouver by the government and relocated to Alberta, out of racism in the guise of public security. With those two stories forming the background of his identity, you can see why Sakamoto wanted to write his 2014 family memoir Forgiveness: A Gift from My Grandparents. And when the book is alternating between the stories of his grandfather, Ralph MacLean, and his grandmother, Mitsue Sakamoto, it is very strong. But in the back third of the book, Sakamoto tries to tie these two stories into his parents’ divorce, his mother’s struggle with addiction, and his own personal and professional development, and it all ends up feeling very strained. At the end of the day, real stories, especially ones that involve multiple generations, can rarely be wrapped up into neat and clean narratives and messages, and Sakamoto’s attempts to fit these stories into a mold at the end makes the book as a whole suffer.
The most impactful thread of the memoir was Mitsue’s story; while Ralph’s time as a POW involved so much cruelty and suffering, there is some cognitive distance for the average reader, as he was a soldier, even one who had voluntarily enlisted. Mitsue was a Canadian citizen living her normal life when her country turned against her and, in bits and pieces, destroyed her and her family’s livelihood, home and sense of safety. In a time when my own country is still running concentration camps against oppressed minorities, it was a bracing and important read.
If the book had ended with the conclusion of Ralph and Mitsue’s stories, I would look on it far more favorably. It’s when he tries to do a speed-run of his parents’ lives that the book loses me. I am sure the chapters about his mother’s addiction issues were very important for Sakamoto to write, but they don’t have a great deal to do with what came before it. Perhaps the thinking is to show generational trauma, but the fact that he largely skims over his Japanese father’s story undercuts that. And trying to tie everything into themes of “forgiveness” ends up feeling ham-fisted at best.
Forgiveness is not a bad book, it just feels like one and a half books crammed into one. Sakamoto’s writing is very matter-of-fact, but that works well with some of the horrors he is writing about. It just needed someone with a firmer editorial hand to separate out what was necessary to make a comprehensive story and what were just facts about his family.
Would I Recommend It: A lukewarm yes.