The Legend of the Fire Horse Woman by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston, Kensington Books, 2003. 329 pages. $15.
By Eric Paul Shaffer
When I opened The Legend of the Fire Horse Woman by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston, I was expecting memoir, a personal account of historical events. I expected memoir because Jeanne Wakatsuki’s first book, co-authored with husband James D. Houston, is the celebrated Farewell to Manzanar, an account of her family’s internment in the Manzanar Relocation Center in California.
In 1942, during the hysteria generated by the Japanese “surprise attack” on Pearl Harbor, 120,000 Americans of Japanese heritage were forced into concentration camps in the Western United States and Hawai`i. Farewell to Manzanar chronicles three years her family lived behind barbed wire. But, as I was saying before I so rudely interrupted myself, when you read The Legend of the Fire Horse Woman, you will be reading a novel, and a good one.
Some may not know what a Fire Horse woman is. Many Westerners think the Chinese calendar is a 12-year cycle, with each year named for an animal. For instance, 2007 is the Year of the Pig. The reality is more complex. The calendar actually revolves through a 60-year cycle pairing each year’s animal with one of a rotating sequence of the five Chinese elements, wood, fire, earth, metal and water. Thus, 2007 is a Fire Pig year. And once every 60 years, there is a Fire Horse year.
Among the Japanese, who adopted the Chinese calendar, arose the unfortunate notion that a woman born in the year of the Fire Horse would ruin the lives of men with her fierce, stubborn nature. Such women were considered unmarriageable and became outcasts.
The Legend of the Fire Horse Woman is a braid of the three lives of Teruko, known as Terri; her mother Hana; and Sayo, the eponymous Fire Horse Woman. All three are interned at Manzanar from 1942 to 1945, and the strands consist of their daily lives in the camp interwoven with the events of Sayo’s departure from Japan, Pacific passage, arrival in California and early life in America. The lives of these three women contrast so elegantly and distinctly that curiosity compels readers to discover how these generations can truly be grandmother, mother and child. Such are the changes wrought by arriving in California and joining the inexhaustible flux of American culture.
Within the “contemporary” flow of events in 1942, the novel depicts the dissolution of Hana’s marriage. After internment, Hana gradually opposes the rule of her domineering husband Tad and because of her growing attraction to another man, she emerges as a strong, forceful woman. The family drama plays out against the backdrop of the events the Houstons detailed in Farewell to Manzanar: the confusion of early internment, modifying the barracks into living space, the “Manzanar riot,” the controversy that divided over their national allegiances and the induction of the men into the armed forces of the very nation that supposedly doubted their loyalties.
Terri, the 13-year-old daughter of Hana and granddaughter of Sayo, befriends Billy, one of the soldiers in the guard towers constructed at the barbed-wire borders of the camp. As they converse across the fence, Terri reminds Billy that she is an American citizen and proves she knows more about the United States than he does. He reveals his doubts about the internment, and he brings Terri gum and movie magazines as gifts to ease her isolation from the culture in which she was born and raised.
Terri also has visions of Native Americans, ghosts who speak to her and dance in the firebreaks between the barracks. These are Paiutes, on whose land the camp was hurriedly constructed. She learns the tribe had comfortably inhabited the Owens Valley before the Los Angeles Water Authority drained it to a desert. The visions, startling as they seem, lead to surprising revelations about her family heritage.
The history of Sayo is the enduring and essential thread. The tale of her arrival in San Francisco as a picture bride, the subsequent dissolution of that marriage, and her partnership with the mysterious Cloud lead to the establishment of the “Heavenly Cloud Inn,” a decidedly American version of a Japanese teahouse in Watsonville. Sayo is the untamed Fire Horse woman, a repository of wisdom and strength, upon which both Hana and Terri depend.
As wise old grandmother, Sayo constantly surprises, making startling decisions and dispensing unexpected advice. Her commitment to enduring and overcoming all the challenges of life, fair, unfair and overwhelming, is the heart of the novel. The details of her existence are absorbing, and the enrichment of our American history provided by the interwoven Japanese experience is remarkable, but the strength and humor Sayo demonstrates at every twist of fate is what makes the tale well worth reading and the story effortlessly memorable. MTW