bears the same light and shadow,
is sustained by the same sap that will release it in blazing color.
It is that moment before falling we all live for,
to see ourselves for the first time,
to hear our name being called from the inside.
~~ Deanna Nikaido, daughter of a Japanese American “evacuee” ~~
Set against the backdrop of World War II, Bridge of Scarlet Leaves opens in late 1941 when Americans had no way of knowing how dramatically their lives would change on the morning of December 7, Pearl Harbor Day. Maddie Kern is a nineteen-year-old violinist living in Los Angeles with her older brother, T.J., a promising pitcher with major-league dreams who attends the University of Southern California on scholarship. Maddie is preparing to audition for Julliard for a second time — she froze during her first audition — while working in the tailoring shop her parents owned before a New Year’s Eve car accident left her mother dead and her father catatonic in a local nursing home.
Unbeknownst to T.J., Maddie has been dating his best friends, Lane Moritomo, a handsome, intelligent American-born son of Japanese immigrants who is studying at Stanford University. Lane’s father is an executive with Sumitomo Bank.
Maddie and Lane know that neither their families nor community will approve of their relationship, but Lane is tired of sneaking around, unable to proudly declare and show his love for Maddie. He becomes convinced that if they marry, courageously and publicly proclaiming their love, their proud and loving families will eventually come to accept their choice. And marriage to Maddie will force his parents to cancel their arrangement with the Japanese matchmaker who has arranged for Lane to marry a woman he has never met.
After a simple ceremony and one beautiful night together in Seattle, one of the few places where they are legally free to marry, they awake on their first morning as husband and wife — December 7, 1941 — to find that the entire world has changed. Japan has attacked Pearl Harbor, ending U.S. diplomatic negotiations with with the Empire and sending young Americans into war.
Soon, it becomes clear that Maddie is married to a man considered by her country to be the enemy. Lane’s father is immediately imprisoned, the family home ransacked, as government agents look for evidence of espionage. Lane and Maddie are ripped apart before they have a chance to begin their married life as Lane must take his rightful place as head of his family, looking out for his mother and eight-year-old sister, Emma. Businesses refuse service, Japanese Americans are shunned or, worse, brutally attacked, curfews are enacted. And the Moritomos have no idea if their husband and father is safe or when he will be released.
Then the fateful order is issued: Japanese and Japanese American citizens must report, bringing with them only what they can carry. Lane and his family are interned at Manzanar, a camp in the remote and dusty eastern California desert. Maddie, lonely and desperate to be with her husband, concocts a way to be with him, but life behind barbed wire brings anything but relief or true happiness.
Fueled by anger, resentment, and regret, T.J. enlists in the Army. Life in the camp brings Lane to the breaking point and eventually he, too, joins up, leaving Maddie with his mother and little sister. As the war drags on, all face uncertain futures and wonder what the world and their lives will be like if they are eventually reunited.
Bridge of Scarlet Leaves is an epic story of love, loss, courage, forgiveness, and redemption poised against the most challenging and transforming time in America’s history.
December 7, 1941, the “day that lives in infamy,” forever altered the United States and its people because it sent this country into a war it never wanted to fight. Author Kristina Yoshida McMorris learned years ago of a family friend who was a U.S. soldier while his own brother fought for Japan. But while conducting research, she stumbled onto a little-known fact: when the Japanese internment camps were established, approximately two hundred non-Japanese citizens opted to live in the camps with their interned spouses, rather than be separated. Bridge of Scarlet Leaves was born.
Through the characters in Bridge of Scarlet Leaves, McMorris compassionately explores the theme of prejudice. T.J. and Lane have always been as close as brothers — the best of friends. Even so, when Maddie begins dating Lane, she understands that she is crossing a line. No matter how much T.J. cares for Lane, finding out that his sister is dating a Japanese boy will enrage T.J. and tear the two friends apart, especially considering that T.J. has yet to face his anger about the car accident that claimed the life of their mother and left their father incapacitated. Lane knows that his parents will have substantially the same reaction when they learn that he is dating a Caucasian girl and is loathe to dishonor his parents, although he knows that he cannot agree to enter into an arranged marriage. Lane sees a hastily-planned wedding with Maddie as the only solution and convinces Maddie to elope.
That Lane and Maddie truly love each other in never in doubt, but whether their love can endure as America is dragged out of its Isolationist stance into full-fledged war is very much in question. Suddenly, even though he was born and raised in the U.S., Lane is considered an enemy, his hurt, bewilderment, and anger intricately and beautifully conveyed by McMorris. Likewise, Maddie finds herself shunned by neighbors and friends who cannot fathom how she could enter into an interracial marriage. In one particularly poignant and heartbreaking moment, Maddie loses the support of the benefactor who had promised to bankroll her education at Julliard, her dream of being a professional violinist lost.
T.J.’s emotional conflict is particularly compelling because he cares deeply for his friend, but believes that Lane betrayed him by not confessing his feelings for Maddie. Already on an emotional precipice because of his parents’ accident, T.J. impulsively enlists in the Army. He channels the complex emotions that he has never comes to terms with into his fight to survive, as he wonders whether he will see his loved ones again. Eventually, his experiences teach him about who one’s real enemies are.
Lane, driven to the brink by life in the internment camp, enlists, as well, in order to prove that he is not America’s enemy but, rather, a proud citizen ready to serve his country. Trained for the Military Intelligence Service, he is dispatched to the Pacific where he serves as an interpreter and translator. His unique understanding of Japanese customs and traditions make him an asset to his unit while his wartime experiences deepen his appreciation of his own dual heritages
Maddie finds herself alone with Lane’s mother, Kumiko, and Emma. She struggles to understand and forge a bond with her proud, determined mother-in-law and theirs is perhaps the most touching relationship in the book. Gradually, as Kumiko reveals her own history, Maddie comprehends why she has presented such a stoic, unyielding face to the world. Kumiko’s beliefs in tradition and Japanese superstitions have cost her dearly, but those revelations help the two women realize that they are more alike than different.
McMorris blends real-life events and fictional characters with her own Japanese American sensitivity to her subject matter and painstaking research to spectacular result. Bridge of Scarlet Leaves is exquisitely injected with imagery, symbolism, and gut-wrenching authenticity. The story is captivating, each character’s journey fraught with uncertainty and utterly fascinating. Fans of historical fiction will find themselves mesmerized as McMorris’ narration alternates between the experiences of Maddie, Lane, and T.J., unable to tear themselves away until they read the next chapter and the next . . .
Bridge of Scarlet Leaves would make an excellent book club selection because of the many themes that lend themselves to thorough discussion. It receives my very highest recommendation, but be forewarned: set aside time and tissues. You will definitely need both.