The East-West House by Christy Hale
This was a very interesting and enlightening read. I can honestly say that I didn’t know enough about Isamu Noguchi or his accomplishments before I read this book. I had visited the Art Institute of Chicago to view his art exhibit and a neighboring structure he had built, but for some reason, it never hit me that he was biracial or bicultural. My husband and I explored his works, which of course, I couldn’t help but find interest in. My mother was a missionary in Japan in the 1970s and taught us basic Japanese as children, so the culture has become a natural fascination for me. Even after my surface explorations though, I found this book to offer still more insights into Noguchi’s life and more specifically, his bicultural childhood identity. The story takes place briefly in the U.S. and then in Japan, during the early 1900s.
Isamu was a boy of the East and the West. Born in the United States to a Japanese father and Scotch-Irish American mother, Isamu grew up in Japan. From his earliest years he felt the tug of his biracial heritage, never quite fitting in or thinking he belonged. Pleasure came, however, from the natural world. Color, light, and shadow. Earth, wood, and stone. Working with these forms of nature, Isamu found a way to blend his cultural divide. It was an exploration that became the cornerstone and spirit of his lifelong creative journey. — Lee and Low Books
This story was something completely new to me. It’s very honest and inclusive of certain elements that many children’s stories lack. For families who have experienced a split, as Isamu does growing up fatherless, it touches on topics like loneliness and self-exploration. The book also depicts a time in Japan when there was growing resentment toward Americans. Isamu is a double outsider, being both a foreigner in a new land and a biracial child in a community where no one else looks quite like him. I think that this is a story that many mixed / hapa children can relate to. It’s a very real depiction of some uncomfortable challenges and the tale of a boy who finds success in his own creativity and dreams.
In the story we hear about how Isamu is picked on at school, we see him walking through the streets with his mother as onlookers stare in disapproval and curiosity. Over the course of the book, the initial culture shock at the beginning of the book warms into this gentle story of a mother and son bonded by love and mutual interests. Isamu’s mother encourages his creativity and nurtures his bicultural identity. At the end of the book, Isamu is constructing his famous “East-West House“, a physical embodiment of the two halves of his identity. Readers are left with the understanding that Isamu has found peace in his mixed identity and embraces bicultural life.
Following the story, there is an extended bio about Isamu Noguchi…about his life, his accomplishments and his artistic creations. Christy Hale does an excellent job of discussing some of those disheartening and uncomfortable challenges for mixed families, especially for those who live on the borders of socially and politically divided cultures. This book could easily be used as a tool for opening up with your child about sensitive topics when you can’t quite find the words.
Disclosure: The opinions above are my own and I haven’t received any compensation for this review. Lee & Low Books has graciously supplied this book as a giveaway item. If you’re selected as the winner, Lee & Low Books will contact you via email and promptly ship your prize.