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Dust of Eden (book)

Creators: Mariko Nagai

Book cover. Courtesy of Albert Whitman & Company
View in the Densho Encyclopedia

Acclaimed children's book in verse about the wartime incarceration experience of a Japanese American family told from the perspective of a middle-school aged girl.

Protagonist Mina Masako Tagawa lives in Seattle with her fifteen-year-old brother Nick, her parents, her grandfather, and her cat named Basho. Her grandfather breeds roses and her father writes for a local newspaper. She and her best best friend, Jamie Gilmore, are inseparable. Mina's apparently happy life is brought to a halt by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor , which she learns about at church choir practice. She returns home to find that her father has been taken away by authorities. Before long, the Tagawas are caught up in the forced removal of all Japanese Americans on the West Coast and have to leave their home on short notice. Jamie and her family agree to take care of Basho and watch over their house while they are gone. The story follows the Tagawas to the Puyallup Assembly Center and to the Minidoka , Idaho, concentration camp. Mina's father eventually is allowed to rejoin the family at Minidoka. Meanwhile, Nick's initial anger at his treatment is channeled into a determination to volunteer for the army, a sentiment his father strongly opposes. Grandpa stubbornly tries to grow roses in front of the family's barracks.

Dust of Eden is divided into four parts: "Part I. Seattle, Washington" covers the events until the Tagawas are gathered to be taken away to Puyallup; "Part II. Camp Harmony" covers their time at the " assembly center "; "Part III. Minidoka Relocation Center" covers events at Minidoka to the end of 1943; while "Part IV: Minidoka Relocation Center" covers the rest of their time there and their eventual return to Seattle. Each section consists of a series of poems, each titled with a month and year, and most written in the first person voice of Mina. Some take the form of letters to her father or to Jamie, or of class assignments. Many describe details of the her family's roundup and conditions in the concentration camps and her feelings about them. Later in the novel, there are letters written from Nick's perspective after he has joined the army. At the end of the novel, Nagai includes a brief historical summary titled, "About the Japanese American Internment."

Author Mariko Nagai was born in Tokyo, but raised in Belgium (to age five), Japan (to age eight), then San Francisco and later Chattanooga, Tennessee. She graduated from Boston University and went on to an M.A. in creative writing from New York University. Her three prior books of poetry and fiction— Histories of Bodies: Poems (2007); Georgic: Stories (2010); and Instructions for the Living (2012) won much acclaim, including Pushcart Prizes in both poetry and fiction. She was inspired to write Dust of Eden from being around Japanese Americans as a child in San Francisco and hearing their stories of the war years. "The questions of statelessness, loyalty, displacement, resilience ... rose from my own experiences," she told journalist Suzanne Kamata. She currently lives in Tokyo and teaches creative writing at Temple University's Japan campus. [1]

The events depicted in the book mostly conform to what is know about the wartime incarceration. However, as in many fictional works, there is some time shifting of events. Mina writes of a Nisei who renounces his citizenship and is set to leave for Japan in April 1943 (page 73); however legislation that allowed renunciation didn't take effect until over a year later. Nick receives his high school diploma in the mail (75)—which he promptly rips up—in June 1943. While some Nisei did receive their diplomas in camp, these were 1942 graduates, not a 1943 graduate who had not attended school since at least April 1942. Many Nisei like Nick did receive high school diplomas decades later. Later, Nick is excited to learn about the 442nd Regimental Combat Team (83) and informs his family of his intention to enlist; but this scene takes place in November 1943, some nine months after the formation of the 442nd, something Nick would undoubtedly have learned of by this time. Nagai also refers to the actual killing of a Issei internee at the Fort Sill, Oklahoma, camp in May 1942, using the name "Ichiro Shimoda," rather than the victim's real name, Kanesaburo Oshima .

Authored by Brian Niiya , Densho


  1. author website, ; Suzanne Kamata, "Born in Japan, Made in America," The Japan Times , March 22, 2014, ; Mariko Nagai website, Temple University Japan, , all accessed on September 20, 2016.
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Dust of Eden

This item has been made freely available in the Digital Library of Japanese American Incarceration , a collaborative project with Internet Archive .

Might also like: Paper Wishes by Lois Sepahban; The Little Exile by Jeanette S. Arakawa; The Invisible Thread by Yoshiko Uchida

Media Details
Author Mariko Nagai
Pages 122
Publication Date 2014
Awards Honor Award, Arnold Adoff Poetry Award for New Voices, 2016


Ellis, Sarah. The Horn Book Magazine , May-June 2014, 93.

Fiebelkorn, Cathy, VOYA , Feb. 2014, 63.

Kirkus Reviews , Jan. 29, 2014.

Morrison, Hope. Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books , Apr. 2014, 418.

Norton, Ellen. School Library Journal , Apr. 2014, 150.