Book Review: How to Be an American Housewife
How to be an American Housewife, by Margaret Dilloway is one of those rare books that manages to manipulate the emotions of the reader without causing them to lose touch with reality. There is no rick fantasy world, no foreign concepts, no desire to work solely by it's own logic. It's set right here in our own universe, and the characters, and their struggles, are all too real. It's easy to relate to these people, and the fact that they could be real draws you into their lives in a way that will leave you crying. The work is a semi-autobiographical account of the author's mother, but there's no telling how much is true and how much is fictionalized. But it doesn't really matter. Every word could be true, and it's so well written that you truly believe it is.
The story centers around Shoko and, later, her daughter Suiko. We begin, and are instantly drawn in, by a woman in her twilight years reflecting on her life. She has a major heart defect that doctors believe was caused by radiation poisoning, as she grew up in WW2 Japan and was exposed to the fall out from the nuclear blast. The heart disease has already taken out other members of her family, and she fears that she may not live much longer. She hasn't been able to see her family since she moved away from Japan, to the United States, with her husband, and longs to be able to talk to her brother once more before she dies. If that's not enough to tug your heartstrings before you even get out of the first chapter, you might not have a soul.
The first part of the book is dedicated to Shoko, and is that tale of her life; from her time working as teenage in Japan to her series of whirlwind romances, both with local boys and progressively more clueless American soldiers, to her old age, comfortably settled but longing for the past and questioning her choices. It's a tale of the struggles of immigration, the confusion of what the concept of “home” really means. She's constantly questioning her choices. She makes no secret of the fact that she doesn't really love her husband, but settled for him because she could use him and his government connections to get out of her war-torn homeland. But she loves her children and can't really say that she has many regrets.
She had great difficulty, early on, assimilating to American culture, and almost feels cheated. She had expected something different, something grand, but got stuck in military culture; never being able to stay in one place long enough to truly feel at home before her husband's career required her to pick up and move. She tried so hard to make friends with townies, but found that she just fit in better with other Japanese military wives. Unfortunately they were few and far between, and she never really stayed in one place long enough to truly create any kind of social support. You would feel sorry for her, if you didn't know that she would hate you for it. Shoko is fiercely strong and independent; she essentially decides that she doesn't need anyone else and finds a sort of comfort in her own family. It's a trait to be admired.
It;s nearly impossible to talk about Sue without giving out spoilers, as she doesn't take over as narrator until after the events of her mother's life. Shoko believes that she is far too weak to travel; her doctor tells her that she probably wouldn't survive the trip, so she begs her daughter to go to Japan for her, to seek out the uncle she never knew. So Sue reluctantly agrees to take her own child and find her mother's estranged brother. She knows that the heart disease is about to claim her mother's life, and wants to do everything she can to reunite the family torn apart by war and circumstance. Sue doesn't find the warm, loving welcome that she had wanted, that one would expect from a novel. It serves as a grim reminder that this book is based in truth, and in the real world, we don't always get happy endings.
I was greatly disappointed to find that the book, continuously referenced throughout the novel, didn't actually exit. When Shoko marries her husband, he gets her a book entitled, “How to be an American Housewife” that intends to teach Japanese women how to survive in the states. It includes chapters not only on cultural assimilation, but on American religion, culinary arts, socialization, and housekeeping. I wanted to read it so bad. It would have been in public domain by now, since it was published in the 1940s. Unfortunately, the book is NOT part of the “true story” and was a fabrication by the author based on the book “The American Way of Housekeeping”, which was a guidebook for Japanese maids employed in western-style homes. I would love to read anything describing my culture from an outside source. As am American I come from a culture that is very visible and it's a rare opportunity. But it turned out not to be real. So that was a giant disappointment. Though I suppose I had no reason to assume it would be, and it's partially my fault for getting my hopes up.
Where to Buy
I don't want to spoil the ending, and therefore won't be telling you how Shoko's surgery, or Sue's trip went. I will say that this is a book sure to stir the emotions of the reader. This isn't something you should read if you aren't ready for that roller coaster. And if you keep in mind that these are real people, there are even small things that will force a connection between your own experience and theirs. It isn't the sort of book that draws you in to a land of fantasy; it's the type of story that brings the characters to life in our world.
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