How Much Do You Love Me by Paul Mark Tag left me with mixed feelings. It’s a compelling story of a Japanese American family who spent three years in an internment camp during World War II. It’s also the story of a racially mixed marriage. It’s both a story of love and sacrifice and selfishness and deceit.
Keiko Tanaka and James Armstrong have to keep their feelings for each other a secret to avoid the anger of their parents in the early pre World War II time when interracial marriage is considered taboo. With the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, they decide to marry before he is inducted into the military and her family is shipped to an internment camp. As expected their families are upset, but the relationship provides a way for the Armstrongs to keep the Tanaka farm going while the family is away and enables them to provide needed supplies to their daughter-in-law and her family in the camps where they are sent. The poorly built camps lack privacy and are too hot in summer and too cold in winter. They are plagued with illness and all the discomforts of over-crowded conditions. A daughter, Kazuko is born to Keiko in the camp and Keiko’s fiercely loyal twin sister, Misaki, dies.
The story begins with Keiko in a coma in a hospital in this century suffering from a stroke. Her daughter Kazuko and son, Patrick, along with her younger sister, Shizuka, are taking turns keeping a bedside vigil. An old man arrives at Kazuko’s door and is surprised to learn she knows nothing about him or that her mother had been corresponding with him via email. She soon learns he was Keiko’s identical twin sister’s fiancé. He mentions some photographs that were taken at the camp which Kazuko had never seen or heard of either. Her aunt’s reaction to the mention of the photographs sets Kazuko on a hunt to find them and to discover why Misaki’s fiancé has never been mentioned by any of her family. While she is dealing with her mother’s imminent death and the mystery of the photographs, she is also worrying about her father who is in a care center suffering with Alzheimer’s.
This story goes into more detail on conditions in the Japanese internment camps than most stories that deal with that sorry aspect of history. It also explains well the Japanese terms and customs of the people. My only criticism of this part of the story is the reference to Twin Falls being near the Minidoka Camp. I guess that depends on what is considered near, but there were closer towns. Though I wasn’t there during the war, I lived at Minidoka at a later time and was familiar with those barracks. They housed transient farm workers at the time I lived near Minidoka and they were a sad place for human habitation, yet the Minidoka Camp during the war was considered the best of the ten internment camps.
The characters are interesting and it’s easy to feel great compassion for them. There isn’t a lot of growth shown in most of them and some have some sadly misguided values. There’s neither a lot of character development or plot and at times the narrative reads like a history book rather than a novel. Nonetheless, it’s a fascinating read that will not be easily forgotten or dismissed.
Bouncing back and forth between various time periods detracts from the story and lessens the reader’s emotional involvement. The ending involving the big family secret is an emotional let down, even though it is expected. Right up to the end I hoped a character I’d come to care about and respect for her integrity and grit would not ignore the moral ramifications of her selfishness. Her choice was supposedly some great act of love, but it ignored the rights of others involved and was as great a betrayal of their rights as was the internment of American citizens of Japanese descent.
Paul Mark Tag graduated from Pennsylvania State University and worked for the Naval Research Laboratory for thirty years. He wrote a large number of short stories and a couple of thrillers before writing this historical novel. He and his wife live in California.
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HOW MUCH DO YOU LOVE ME by Paul Mark Tag, published by Sweetwater Books an imprint of Cedar Fort, Inc., 256 pages, soft cover $14.36. Also available for e-readers.