Book Review: Forgiveness by Mark Sakamoto

Forgiveness – Mark Sakamoto (Harper Collins Publishers, 2014)

Mitsue Sakamoto was a newlywed living in Vancouver when she, along with her family and hundreds of other Japanese-Canadians, were sent east of the Rockies by the Canadian government. Seen as a threat during World War II although many of them were Canadian citizens, born in Canada, Canadians of Japanese descent were rounded up, interned, forced to work the farms of others for a pittance. Their homes, businesses, and worldly goods were taken from them and very little of their property was returned.

Ralph MacLean was a teenager when he signed up to serve in World War II. Looking for an escape from his remote island community on the East Coast of Canada, he and his buddies were excited to be stationed in Hong Kong. There they were vastly outnumbered when Japanese forces attacked. Ralph spent years as Japanese POW, both in Hong Kong and later in Japan. He was starved, humiliated, and watched his friends die.

These are two very different stories but what brings them together is the person of Mark Sakamoto himself. Years after the end of the Second World War, Mitsue’s son and Ralph’s daughter meet, fall in love, marry, and become parents of two boys. At the core of this book and at the core of Sakamoto’s life is the ability of these two people to forgive.

Sakamoto doesn’t sugar coat his grandparents’ histories. Mitsue and her husband eventually move to Medicine Hat, Alberta, not returning to Vancouver as Mitsue had always hoped. The entire trajectory of their lives is changed by the racist attitudes of their fellow Canadians. Ralph returns to Canada, marries, and goes to work at a steady job for the next forty years. His experiences as a POW haunt him for the rest of his life. But both Mitsue and Ralph make a choice to move forward, to continue to see people as individuals rather than a stereotype.

Forgiveness is at its strongest when it is telling the stories of these two remarkable individuals. These sections are imbued with a sort of awe that Sakamoto holds for his grandparents and from the moment we first meet each on the page it is easy to admire them and to want to know more about their lives. In the second half, Sakamoto delves into his own personal story. We learn about his childhood, his parents’ divorce, and his mother’s spiral into addiction. Again, he tells this story with honesty but it feels like a different story. The original thread of his grandparents and their survival and their forgiveness seems lost and I felt that it weakened the book overall.

I read Forgiveness as part of The Asian-Canadian Literature Challenge for 2021. While it doesn’t fit in any of the prompts, it was a book that had been on my TBR for a long time so an easy choice to include as I sought to read more books from Asian-Canadian writers. Sakamoto is, obviously, a Canadian of Japanese descent. More than that, this is an extremely important story of Japanese experience in Canada. It is one of the most shameful parts of our country’s history and there are many Canadians still alive today who were affected by this. Books like Forgiveness give an intimate view of what happened to many people, as well as offering us hope that we as individuals can be greater and do better than the racism of mob mentality.

6 thoughts on “Book Review: Forgiveness by Mark Sakamoto”

  1. Sometimes authors that want to write about multiple generations lose the reader because the important story was with one generation. I know that by writing about a few generations it is possible to see a connection, how something can trickle down from grandparent to parent to child, but it doesn’t sound like the trickle was the focus of the book. It sounds like the meaningful part was the grandmother and grandfather and their feelings about nationality.

    1. Yes, that was exactly the issue here. The core of the story was the grandparents and it didn’t carry that through to the last part. I think there could be an interesting exploration of inter-generational trauma and addictions but that isn’t what’s here and I don’t think that was what Sakamoto was going for anyway.

  2. What Melanie said, multi-generational tales are so difficult to pull off-how to give everyone their due time and space without overwhelming the reader! I’ve wanted to read this one for awhile after hearing him on Canada Reads, sounds like a powerful book regardless 😉

    1. The central story of his grandparents is certainly worthwhile and I think the Canada Reads win was well-deserved. I would have preferred to learn more about his grandparents’ lives after the war instead of his parents but that speaks more to how interested I was in them!

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