Book Reviews

The Legend of Fire Horse Woman by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston

Kensington Publishing , New York

The Legend of Fire Horse Woman daringly blends history, Kabuki theater, and romance in telling the story of three generations of Japanese women.

Sayo migrates from Hiroshima to California in 1902 as a picture bride, in spite of her Fire Horse birth sign that marks her as being too strong-willed and independent to make a good wife. Sayo’s early years as an immigrant in San Jose’s nihonmachi (Japantown) is portrayed in flashbacks during her imprisonment 40 years later at the Manzanar internment camp in the high desert of California. The small cubicle Sayo shares at Manzanar with her granddaughter Teruko (Terri) is a far cry from the teahouse she once ran, but it still fulfills Sayo’s need for a room of her own. In spite of harsh living conditions at the camp, Sayo’s daughter Hana finds a soul mate and satisfying work, while 13-year-old Terri befriends an American soldier who helps her explore the Paiute Indian land upon which the camp was built, and Sayo revisits her past in an unexpected way.

The novel is divided into five acts, as in a Japanese Kabuki play. In the first act, we meet the women—Sayo, Hana, and Terri—and in the second, the men—husbands, lovers, and friends. In the third act, “Fateful Meetings,” significant encounters take place between the sexes, while the fourth, “The Wet Scene,” culminates in what I presume is kabuki fashion (one can almost hear the kotos and drums crescendo at the right moments). Ghosts and visions appear at crucial moments and play a surprising role in fulfilling Sayo’s legend.  

It can’t have been easy writing a novel after disclosing so much compelling material in her bestselling memoir, Farewell to Manzanar, written 30 years ago with her husband James D. Houston. Yet Wakatsuki Houston succeeds in showing the emotional and economic damage inflicted upon Japanese Americans by punitive and discriminatory US policies, while also vividly imagining strong characters that survive in true heroic style. Writing fiction allows the author to explore relationships and reveal details not privy to her as a child (she was seven years old in 1942) and to create cross-cultural links that, in the end, give birth to the real American. This novel is her legend as well.  

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.

Reviewed by Kathleen Tyau