Seldom is the story of the Japanese-American internment camps and the signing of Executive Order 9066 invoked in the curriculum of elementary and middle schools. Teresa R. Funke’s historical-fiction children’s novel The No-No Boys (Home-Front Heroes) is an eerie reflection, an ode to hope and despair in the recent era, where Muslim American registries are proposed by politicians. More unfortunate, the past is not invoked for a “learn from history mistakes” learning experience but instead a rationalization of law-sanctioned prejudice.
No-No Boys reminds me of George Takei’s legacy production of Allegiance, which unearths the complexity and torrent of allegiance and emotions within the camps. How does one cope with receiving interrogative questionnaires that “prove your loyalty” when you’re in prison? Funke asks the same questions in the internal minds of Tai’s family. Through Tai’s eyes, he perceives the tranquil confusion and rage in his rather poise father and the disillusionment of his older brother, who now hangs around a crowd with a hazardous agenda. Although Tai’s mother spends the majority of the plot as an invalid, shunted to the background and the bed, she gains a momentary footing in a powerful scene where she assures her son to endure (Gamon, as the song in Allegiance goes). Wary of its short length, I did feel the author had the opportunity to stretch the narrative as the story deserved more room to breathe.
Even in a child’s filter, it succeeds in suggesting more meets the child’s eyes. Although a fiction inspired by the testimonies of friends, even if hypothetical, the book is a compelling snapshot into the life of a young Japanese American boy finding his own way to come to terms with his situation. Although aimed for a children’s audience, adults reading it over their kids’ bedside will find rich dynamics and poignant moments of contemplation.
No-No Boys is a historical fiction plucky enough not to end on the clean happy ending; it does not conclude on a camp liberation. We know in foregone conclusions that the camps will be liberated in the literal sense. But that would never reverse the sense of loss and indignity Tai and his family have to survive. There are decisions they make within the camps for pragmatism, and none of their limited agency can change the fact that they lived under the whims of the decision of a nation that was supposed to be home.