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The Legend of Fire Horse Woman (book)

Book cover. Courtesy of Kensington
View in the Densho Encyclopedia

Novel by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston published in 2003 that is set in large part in Manzanar .

The book centers on three women, Issei picture bride Sayo Matsubara, her Nisei daughter Hana Murakami, and Hana's Sansei daughter Terri moving back and forth in time between the World War II years, when they and the rest of the family are incarcerated in Manzanar, and Sayo's marriage and early life in San Jose and Watsonville, California, forty years before. For both Sayo and Hana, arranged marriages don't work out for different reasons, and each finds true love in circumstances that seem to prevent fulfillment. In the course of the family's life at Manzanar—which is never explicitly named in the book—many of the key events of the camp's history play a role in the plot, from the December 1942 riot/uprising , the orphanage , the loyalty questionnaire , military service , and the resettlement of one character in a fictitious town resembling Seabrook Farms , New Jersey. The intertwined histories of Japanese Americans and Native Americans embodied in the history of Manzanar also play a key role in the book. The title refers to Sayo being born under the fire horse sign: by tradition, this signifies a woman whose independence and fiery nature make them poor wives in the traditional Japanese sense. However in the new world of Japanese immigrants in the United States, being a fire horse woman takes on a different meaning.

Houston was first inspired to write the book after doing a series of interviews with picture brides in Hawai'i many years earlier. She was also influenced by Richard Stewart, a Paiute Indian man who was a docent at Manzanar and by her parents stories of farming in Watsonville, which led to her setting part of the novel there. She also realized that many people still didn't know the story of Japanese American incarceration and wanted to tell the story in a different way to a different audience, particularly women. "I wanted to write a book women would read and enjoy and identify but by the end would have learned something," she told Suzanne Mantell. "I still believe in stories." She wrote the book intermittently over a ten year period. [1]

Critics generally reviewed the book positively, praising its integration of the social history of wartime incarceration with its strong women-centered storyline. [2] Called "a staggeringly multicultural work," others also cited its deft integration of the Native American storyline. [3] Other reviewers thought the day-to-day racism of the incarceration insufficiently detailed, found some elements of the storyline far fetched, and felt that male characters were "unevenly limned" in contrast to the female ones. [4]

Authored by Brian Niiya , Densho

Might also like: Why She Left Us by Rahna Reiko Rizzuto; When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka; Picture Bride by Yoshiko Uchida


  1. Jessica Neuman Beck, "Smoke, She Is A-Rising, Metroactive , Nov. 5, 2003, ; Nadine Kam, "'Fire Horse' Captures the Strength of Asian Women," Honolulu Star Bulletin , Nov. 7, 2003, ; Suzanne Mantell, "The Legend of Fire Horse Woman (Book)," Publishers Weekly , August 11, 2003, 138, Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost, all accessed on January 30, 2014.
  2. See for instance, Anthony Day, "Resilience of a Culture Uprooted and Replanted," Los Angeles Times , Dec. 19, 2003, ; Kathleen Tyau, WaterBridge Review , Nov. 2004, ; and Hiromi Goto, "Manzanar as Metaphor," Women's Review Of Books 21.10/11 (July 2004), 22, Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost, all accessed on January 30, 2014.
  3. Quote from Josephine Bridges, The Asian Reporter , June 1, 2004, ; Publishers Weekly , September 8, 2003, , both accessed on January 30, 2014.
  4. Goto, "Manzanar as Metaphor"; Wanda Adams,"'Fire Horse Woman' Blazes Rough Trail," Honolulu Advertiser , Nov. 9, 2003, ; quote from Day, "Resilience of a Culture," all accessed on January 30, 2014.
Media Details
Author Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston
Pages 329
Publication Date 2003
For More Information

For More Information

Beck, Jessica Neuman. " Smoke, She Is A-Rising. " Metroactive , Nov. 5, 2003.

Kam, Nadie. " 'Fire Horse' Captures the Strength of Asian Women. " Honolulu Star Bulletin , Nov. 7, 2003.

Mantell, Suzanne. "The Legend of Fire Horse Woman (Book)." Publishers Weekly , August 11, 2003, 138. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost.



Adams, Wanda. " 'Fire Horse Woman' Blazes Rough Trail. " Honolulu Advertiser , Nov. 9, 2003. ["'Fire Horse Woman' is a pleasurable read and one that those who enjoy historical fiction (and a little mild eroticism) will swallow whole. However, it's not the most tightly knit piece of fiction or the most believable."]

Bridge, Josephine. The Asian Reporter , June 1, 2004.

Day, Anthony. " Resilience of a Culture Uprooted and Replanted. " Los Angeles Times , Dec. 19, 2003. ["As social history 'The Legend of Fire Horse Woman' excels. As a novel it is not as satisfying."]

Goto, Hiromi. "Manzanar as Metaphor." Women's Review Of Books 21.10/11 (July 2004): 22. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost. ["For those who want to read an uplifting tale of female fortitude and optimism this novel will provide an emotional boost."]

Huntley, Kristine. Booklist , Nov. 15, 2003, 575. ["Houston vividly re-creates the limitation and loneliness of life in the Manzanar camp while showing each woman finding something she didn't know she needed—Terri discovers her talent, Hana her voice, and Sayo something she thought she'd lost long ago. An absorbing, lovely novel."]

Publishers Weekly , September 8, 2003. ["… [draws] parallels between Native Americans and displaced Japanese-Americans without hammering the reader with history lessons or blaming individuals for government's actions.]

Tyau, Kathleen. WaterBridge Review , Nov. 2004. ["' The Legend of Fire Horse Woman is a loving and timely tribute, a passionate liberation of the phoenix from the ashes of an otherwise devastating experience."]