American Scrapbook (book)
Creators: Jerome Charyn
The 177-page novel focuses on the story of the Tanaka family in Manzanar, who hailed from the coastal farming community of Watsonville, California, before the war. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the unnamed Issei mother of the family was arrested and sent to an internment camp in Montana; though her children think of her, no communication from her is noted. The unnamed Issei father chooses to live separate from the family in Manzanar, with the Issei bachelors. Each of the five Tanaka Nisei offspring ranging in age from 30 to 13 live in the same barracks apartment, along with the husband of the eldest daughter. The story in the novel is told through the perspective of these six Nisei, each of the six chapters written in one of their first person voices.
With both parents gone, eldest daughter Fumi serves as surrogate mother to the brood. Her husband, Mitsuo Arimoto is the block manager and a Boy Scout leader who was a Japanese American Citizens League leader in Watsonville. Eldest son Harold, who had been a student at Stanford, is the editor of the camp newspaper, The Patriot , while his younger brother, Chuichi, a prewar army enlistee, had been kicked out of the army after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Fourteen year old Napoleon idolizes Chuichi and wants to be a naval gunner, while thirteen year old Ruby has gotten pregnant by a Nisei zoot suiter named Wendell Haraguchi. The storyline follows the gradual disintegration of the family in the cauldron of Manzanar, climaxing with Chuichi becoming a no-no and going to Tule Lake, where the last chapter, told through his eyes, takes place.
The fifth of the New York native Charyn's nearly fifty books and his fourth novel, American Scrapbook was the first to venture beyond the New York Jewish world of his early works. It was published when the author was just thirty-two years old. It was widely reviewed at the time, with mainstream reviewers praising the choice of topic and lamenting the injustices bestowed on Japanese Americans, but mostly finding fault with the novelist's treatment of it. In particular, the device of having each chapter in the voice of a different character and Charyn's use of black humor were contentious elements for reviewers. The first was found to be "somewhat chaotic" by one reviewer and resulting in the reader being only "given a surface impression" while remaining "detached as if he were glancing through an old album of faded photographs" by another; on the other hand, Daniel Stern in Life writes that "Charyn dips in and out of the minds of multitude of characters—the author's voice never intrudes and the pitfalls of the moralizer are avoided."  On the latter, Thomas Lask in the New York Times thought that, "Too much of the book is reduced to a campus spree," adding, "Mr. Charyn's aim was undoubtedly to show the dark side through the humor, but the effect is that the comedy, which should be only a side to the novel, colors the whole." On the other hand, the reviewer in Time magazine wrote that "Charyn knows how to make a pratfall out of a pitfall, how to convert sordid realism into a sort of surrealism."  Other reviewers objected to the crude language.  Calling American Scrapbook "Charyn's one truly unsuccessful book," literary critic Albert J. Guerard wrote, "It would be excessive to say Charyn's Nisei always have the mentality and humor of New York Jews." 
Not surprisingly, reviewers for the Japanese American Citizens League organ the Pacific Citizen objected to what they argued were unrealistic portrayals of Japanese Americans the book. Allan Beekman found "the characters... lacking in qualities sufficient to render them human," and "motivated by blood-lust or unbridled sexual passion." "After all, the average reader has not picked up the book with the intention of reading an animal story," he concluded. Bill Hosokawa found the Tanakas to be "a remarkably untypical family," with the book giving the impression that "the evacuees were sexually preoccupied if not depraved, unable to cope with reality, given to wild flights of fancy and delusions of power, and either wildly anti-American or almost as wildly anti-Japanese." 
Though largely forgotten today, American Scrapbook anticipates Julie Otsuka's critically acclaimed 2008 novel When the Emperor Was Divine , which employs a similar structure.
- Publishers' Weekly , March 3, 1969, p. 50; Terrence A. McVeigh, Best Sellers , June 15, 1969, p. 107; Daniel Stern, "The Day the Melting Pot Froze Up." Life , June 6, 1969, 24.
- Thomas Lask, New York Times , June 3, 1969, p. 45; Time , July 4, 1969, p. 81, accessed online at http://www.time.com/time/subscriber/article/0,33009,840212,00.html on March 10, 2014.
- "The language and explicitness of some scenes do seem unnecessarily obscene," Robert Stewart, Library Journal , May 1, 1969, p. 1897; "wearisome vulgarity," Allan Beekman, "Novel on Evacuation Still Needed," Pacific Citizen, Aug. 29, 1969, p. 6.
- Albert J. Guerard, "Notes on the Rhetoric of Anti-Realist Fiction," Tri-Quarterly 30 (Spring 1974), 39.
- Beekman, "Novel on Evacuation"; Bill Hosokawa, "From the Frying Pan" column, Pacific Citizen , Sept. 5, 1969, p. 3.
Find in the Digital Library of Japanese American Incarceration
This item has been made freely available in the Digital Library of Japanese American Incarceration , a collaborative project with Internet Archive .
For More Information
Charyn, Jerome. American Scrapbook . New York: The Viking Press, 1969.
Guerard, Albert J. "Notes on the Rhetoric of Anti-Realist Fiction." Tri-Quarterly 30 (Spring 1974): 3–50.
Beekman, Allan. "Novel on Evacuation Still Needed" Pacific Citizen, Aug. 29, 1969, 6. ["Perhaps the most useful function of the novel might be to inspire some evacuee to do better."]
Bellman, Samuel L. Saturday Review , Aug. 23, 1969, 40. ["... a major effort by an unusually gifted writer to tell a story that probably has not been told before (at least, not effectively), but that really must be told, particularly in the present, post-moon walk era."]
Gropman, Donald. "It Can Happen." Christian Science Monitor , July 24, 1969, 7. ["In this beautifully understated novel, Mr. Charyn depicts the disintegration of social groups, families and individual people."]
Hosokawa, Bill. Pacific Citizen , Sept. 5, 1969, 3. ["Most Nisei, I would guess, would hardly recognize 'American Scrapbook' as their story of the evacuation experience."]
"The Dickens in Camp." TIME Magazine , July 4, 1969, 81.
Kirkus Reviews , March 15, 1969, 328. ["Sour humor, a sourer message, this is an almost allegorical suspension of 'the hostility, the shame, the inadequacy, the confusion, that we all. . . share.'"]
Lask, Thomas. New York Times , June 3, 1969, 45. ["Mr. Charyn's aim was undoubtedly to show the dark side through the humor, but the effect is that the comedy, which should be only a side to the novel, colors the whole."]
McVeigh, Terrence A. Best Sellers , June 15, 1969, 107. ["Unfortunately the author by his choice of narrative method has given a surface impression of the life and emotions of these displaced persons which, somehow, allows the reader to remain detached as if her were glancing through an old album of faded photographs."]
Publishers' Weekly , March 3, 1969, 50. ["Unfortunately, this novel never goes deeper than quick sketches and only hints at the larger story underlying the misery of the people….']
Sokolov, Raymond A. "Ignoble Episode." Newsweek , June 9, 1969, 114, 116. ["Charyn has imagined himself quite credibly into the heads of people under stress, deprived of self-respect, reduced to fighting over bathtubs."]
Stern, Daniel. "The Day the Melting Pot Froze Up." LIFE Magazine , June 6, 1969, 24.
Stewart, Robert. Library Journal , May 1, 1969, 1897. ["The language and explicitness of some scenes do seem unnecessarily obscene.']