My rating: 6/10.
All things considered, a slight little period piece, but a very good example of its genre: “teen girl” fiction of the 1950s and 60s, with a thought-provoking and rather brave theme for the time, that of racial prejudice.
Jenny Kimura Smith, 16 years old, has lived her whole life in Japan. Her mother is Japanese, and her father is an ex-U.S. serviceman now working in banking. The Smiths live in Tokyo, and the portrait we are given is of a quietly happy family, enjoying, as Jenny’s father likes to say, the best parts of being both Japanese and American.
Jenny goes to an all-girls high school, and her interests are the same as those of her friends: study hard enough to get decent marks, spend time on your wardrobe, polish up your tennis game, and, increasingly, speculate about boys and romance and your fast-approaching adult life.
But Jenny’s life is about to change quite drastically from that of her schoolmates. Her American grandmother has invited her to spend the summer in Kansa City, and has sent money for airfare.
The invitation is something of a surprise, as Jenny’s father is vaguely estranged from his widowed mother since his Japanese marriage, and also, as we soon learn, because of his mother’s resentment towards the Japanese for the death of her second son during combat in the Pacific theatre in the Second World War. Jenny is excited to have this unexpected opportunity to travel, and is looking forward to experiencing life in exotic America.
On arrival in the States, Jenny is rather bewildered at the lack of open affection shown her by her grandmother, a wealthy, upper class, Kansas City society matron. She wonders why her grandmother has invited her to visit, as Mrs. Smith seems slightly cold and more than a little critical of Jenny’s very Japanese appearance, and some of her mannerisms. However, Grandmother does all of the proper things, and Jenny is introduced to a group of suitable teenagers, and is welcomed warmly into their social circle. It is soon apparent that she has caught the eye of one boy in particular, Alan, who begins squiring her about.
Could Jenny and Alan be falling in love? Not if Alan’s mother has anything to say about it! Once she realizes the increasing intensity of the situation, she whisks Alan away on a sudden holiday trip to remove him from the vicinity of “foreign” Jenny.
The plot takes another twist as Jenny and her grandmother travel to Cape Cod for a seaside holiday, and Jenny meets another young man, a Nisei (American-born Japanese), George Yamada, who was born in a California internment camp in 1944, but who considers himself completely American, despite his Japanese ethnicity and his family’s negative experience during the war.
Jenny immediately likes and is attracted to George, and soon realizes that the two of them are much more readily acceptable as a couple to their acquaintances because of their shared ethnicity, despite the differences in their actual backgrounds, than she and Alan were. She ponders this, and sees its “wrongness” – with her own parents as examples, Jenny realizes that love and “suitability” are more than skin deep – but she also realizes that appearances do matter to all concerned, much as they shouldn’t.
It also becomes very apparent that it is the older generation, the parents and grandparents, who are really resistant to anything like a “mixed race” relationship, while the younger generation is much more accepting, and openly discuss the issues raised by Jenny’s “foreign” appearance in a mostly non-judgemental way, though Jenny notices that she has a certain “novelty” appeal, especially when she appears in a kimono at a social function.
One of the key plot points is that Mrs. Smith deeply resents her son’s Japanese wife and has a hard time accepting and loving her own granddaughter, despite the attempt at reconciliation which inspired the invitation to America. She feels shame that her son has “demeaned” himself so far as to both marry a woman of a different race, and to live quite happily in a foreign country, far from “home”. Though Jenny tries to do everything right during her visit, her grandmother deep down is ashamed of her granddaughter and her “foreign” appearance and behaviours, only coming around when Jenny is snubbed by Alan’s family, when her pride is hurt, and her rage at their prejudice causes her to face her own feelings at last, and makes her realize how unfair her attitude has been in the years since her son’s marriage.
Similarly, from the Japanese viewpoint, Jenny’s mother has been shut out of her own family because of her insistence on marrying a foreigner, and Jenny’s maternal grandparents are cold and bitter towards both their daughter and granddaughter because of the “mixed” marriage which has caused the family to lose face. There is no reconciliation here, though, and it is implied that Jenny’s future relations will be much more positive with her father’s family than her mother’s.
The story ends with Jenny poised on the brink of her next step in life. She is about to return to Japan, but she has the promise from her grandmother that there will be a further family reconciliation, and she has had romantic experiences with two young men, George and Alan, which both look like they might possibly turn into something more serious depending upon Jenny’s future decisions. The idea of Jenny attending college in America has been raised, and she rather likes it, but nothing is yet decided, and that is where the story ends.
Despite the rather sober themes for a book of this genre, it is well padded with the usual happenings in a “teen girl” story: parties, shopping, lovely clothes, beach picnics and waiting by the phone for that special someone to call.
Jenny is realistic, likeable, delicately sensitive young heroine, and the author has done a better than average job in her portrayal of Jenny’s life both in Japan and the U.S.A. There are, of course, the expected clichés and stock situations, and many era-correct comments, which are a bit jaw-dropping when viewed from five decades further along.
This is no masterpiece, but it is a quite likeable book, and one I have happily re-read from time to time since my first acquaintance with it back in the 1970s, when I first checked it out of my high school library. The copy I own is that very copy I once signed out, found years later at a library discard sale, and the popularity of its heyday is borne out by the velvet softness of its well-thumbed pages and the many dog-eared corners throughout.
Betty Cavanna was a prolific writer of “teenage” stories from the 1940s through the 1970s, publishing something like seventy titles, ranging from romance novels such as Jenny Kimura, to juvenile mysteries, horse-and-dog stories, and non-fiction “life in other lands” books. While many of her works are viewed as merely “average”, she was known for her meticulous research and wide variance of plots. Unlike many other novelists working in the same genre, Cavanna avoided series books; most of her stories are “stand-alone”.
I doubt that we will ever see this author re-published, but those of us nostalgic for revisiting the reading of our teen years will be happy to occasionally find her titles in secondhand bookstore and book sale rambles. Their value lies mainly in recording the attitudes and vignettes of a time now past, but those are reason enough for their preservation and occasional exploration, in my opinion.