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Private Life (book)

Creators: Jane Smiley

A middle-aged white woman recounts her friendship with a Japanese American family she first meets through personal tragedy; the injustice they experience, partly as a result of her own husband, leads her to a personal awakening.


In a frantic prologue, protagonist Margaret and her friend Pete visit the Tanforan Racetracks, now transformed into an " assembly center ," to visit friends Kiku Kimura and her daughter Naoko, who have been missing since Pearl Harbor was attacked. The older woman is dying from pneumonia she contracted in one of several prisons they were incarcerated in before arriving at Tanforan . Margaret and Pete are relieved to see them, but heartbroken to see the conditions they are forced to live in.

The book shifts in time to 1886 Missouri, when Margaret was a young child, and recounts her childhood—punctuated by a series of family tragedies—and her first coincidental encounter with Andrew, the man she would later marry. When they are finally married, they move to Mare Island Naval Station near Vallejo, California, across the bay from San Francisco. She first meets the Kimura family at the boardinghouse where she stays briefly to give birth to her child (who only survives for a few weeks). Naoko, the Nisei daughter of the family, works for the boardinghouse, and her mother, Kiku, is a midwife. Over the subsequent decades, Margaret crosses paths with the Kimuras on numerous occasions, and becomes an admirer of Mr. Kimura's powerful paintings.

After the Japanese imperial army's brutal attack of Nanjing (often called the rape of Nanking), Margaret's husband, who is prone to paranoid delusions already, begins searching for evidence of a grander Japanese conspiracy of war, and homes in on the Kimuras as likely spies. He writes lengthy reports and submits them to the Navy and President Roosevelt. Margaret finds this offensive but pathetic. When Pearl Harbor is attacked and she is not able to reach the Kimuras, however, and she learns from their neighbors that they were arrested, she fears her husband's interference has harmed her friends. Soon after she and Pete visit the Kimuras, Kiku dies from pneumonia, and she hears from Naoko that she and friends are being transferred to a camp in Arizona. As the novel concludes, finally fed up with a husband who has frustrated and suffocated her for years, Margaret decides to write a book about her experiences.

Author Background

Jane Smiley has authored both fiction and nonfiction, and was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1992 for her novel, A Thousand Acres . In 2001 she was named to the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Historical Accuracy

The novel begins with Margaret and Pete finally discovering Kiku and Naoko, whose whereabouts were unknown after Pearl Harbor when they were arrested and taken away. In the days following the attack on Pearl Harbor over 5,500 Japanese Americans were arrested and detained, but only a handful were women. While this scenario is not impossible, it is highly improbable.

Pete mentions hearing of a Japanese American businessman who was arrested who was a member of the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) and had purchased land in his son's name. The fact that he had purchased land in his son's name strongly suggests he was an Issei ; following the passage of a series of Alien Land Laws , "aliens ineligible for citizenship" would try to circumvent these discriminatory laws by buying property and land in the name of their US citizen children. Thus it is improbable that this businessman was a member of the JACL, which was limited to U.S. citizens.

Mrs Wareham tells Margaret that Lester, the Kimuras' son, was arrested for illegal gambling right after Pearl Harbor because the sheriffs were arresting as many young men as they could on whatever charges they could exploit. With the exception of the immigrant male leaders who were on the FBI/ABC lists and rounded up in the days following Pearl Harbor, other men—including American-born U.S. citizenship-holding Nisei—were not arrested in this way. The government created guidelines for the general control of the Japanese American population on the West Coast and did not charge individuals with specific crimes.


Private Life was very well received, with mostly positive reviews in major outlets. The reviews focused more on Margaret and her marriage, and only tangentially mention the place of the Kimuras in the novel's key moments.

Authored by Emily Anderson

Might also like: Southland by Nina Revoyr; Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson; When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka

Media Details
Author Jane Smiley
Pages 317
Publication Date 2010


Arana, Marie. Washington Post , May 11, 2010.

Birkets, Sven. An Oblique Life. New York Times Book Review , May 14, 2010.

Bradbury, Lorna. Daily Telegraph , May 14, 2010.

Ciabattari, Jane. " Smiley's 'Life': The Demands of a Loveless Marriage. " National Public Radio, May 19, 2010.

Clark, Alex. "When the Warmth Falls Away: Jane Smiley's Refined Realism." Times Literary Suppliment , Apr. 30, 2010, 19.

Courteau, Sarah. Chicago Tribune .

Eder, Richard. " Misery's Company in Jane Smiley's Latest, 'Private Life.' " Los Angeles Times , May 9, 2010.

Kakutani, Michiko. " An Old Maid Meets a Scientist. No Sparks Fly. " New York Times , May 24, 2010.