Forgiveness by Mark Sakamoto

“Forgiveness is moving on. It is a daily act that looks forward. Forgiveness smiles.”

4/5 stars.
ebook, 210 pages.
Read from February 20, 2018 to February 27, 2018.

This was the one book in the 2018 Canada Reads that I was most excited for. While the book started slow I was absolutely captivated by the brutal history of this family and was soon not able to put it down.

Sakamoto’s family has a rich, tragic and courageous history. His grandfather on his mother’s side, a white-Canadian from the east coast, joined the war efforts in WWII where he was captured in Hong Kong by the Japanese. He lived and suffered intensely for four years in POW camp. His grandmother, on his father’s side, is a Japanese-born Canadian. Sakamoto details the horrifying things that the Canadian government did to his grandmother’s family and the Japanese living in Canada during WWII, especially after the Pearl Harbour bombing. This is a part of history that most Canadians know little about or the brutality of what we did to our own people. I know I sure didn’t and it really opened my eyes. Canada is often viewed as an untainted and tolerant place to live but our own history is just as stained as others. Additionally, I imagine very few Canadians know of the regiments that served out in Hong Kong and the losing battle that they had to endure.

The book continues through Sakamoto’s family saga and the remarkable ability for his grandparents to forgive was a constant foundation in his life. Can you imagine when Sakamoto’s parents wanted to marry how that might have felt to their own parents? Each had suffered so much from each other’s different ethnicities and tet their powerful understanding, shared suffering, and ability to move forward is nothing short of courageous. Sakamoto also details the difficult upbringing he had with his alcoholic mother and how that shaped his future ambitions and responsibilities.

Mitsue Sakamoto, the author’s grandmother, Phyllis MacLean the author’s mother, Ralph MacLean, the author’s grandfather and Stan Sakamoto the author’s father in Medicine Hat Alberta in 1968. Source: The Daily Mail

Sakamoto’s story is highly emotional and I would be lying if I did not say I welled up in few parts.  The suffering and tenacity of his grandparents and even the death of his mother were hard to bear as a reader. Sakamoto really drew into some great emotional depth with his story-telling. The added pictures in the book were also a great touch as it really felt like you knew his family.

While I ended up loving this book, I did not start off feeling that way. The book had a slow start for me as I was initially unsure as to where this story or memoir was going. I found some of the initial story transitions to be a bit clunky, though once his grandfather set off for the war things smoothed out and the main theme of the story was starting to finally come together.  While I enjoyed the story of his upbringing and the suffering endured by him and his mother with her alcoholism it was a massive shift in the direction of the book. The book was now reading more like an autobiography. This disjointing and lack of connection from his grandparent’s story to his own story was not as successful as the rest of the emotionally enticing parts about his grandparents. While his own story is moving in its own right, the novel just did not feel like a complete whole on the theme of forgiveness.  Even with that,  I decided on a 4-star review instead of 3 for this book because of how the book made me feel and for how intently I could not stop reading certain portions.

As I currently live in Hong Kong, I found the parts of his grandfather’s time there especially interesting.  However, Sakamoto mentioned that Kowloon is part of the New Territories and part of mainland China, which isn’t correct. Kowloon is a part of Hong Kong and is its own district.  Since 1997, China has since reclaimed Hong Kong but it is technically still its own country and many locals would not be happy being referred to as mainland China! It was wonderful envisioning these areas that I know well and what they would have been like during the war.  As a Canadian, it was also intriguing to read about a battle that took place during WWII that I imagine many Canadians don’t know about. There are some historical museums and treks in Hong Kong that I am now anxious to partake in.

So far, I have read 3 out of the 5 books in the 2018 Canada Reads. Compared to The Marrow Thieves and Precious Cargo, this novel is definitely one to “open your eyes” as the horrors of the Canadian government during WWII and the part that those Canadian regiments played out in Hong Kong are remarkable and need to be known. The content of this novel is truly jaw-dropping and extremely relevant in the context of today’s racial issues and learning from our own past. As it stands, this novel best meets the criteria for the debate in my opinion but what will the final two books hold? We will soon find out…

Em and the Big Hoom by Jerry Pinto


3/5 stars.
Paperback, 224 pages.
Read on January 19, 2015

This book was recommended to me and I was able finish reading it in one sitting as I was on a flight to Cuba. Admittedly this was the first time that I had even heard of the author, Jerry Pinto, who has published numerous books. This particular novel is Pinto’s first and, based on some quick research, is a story about his own family and the experiences that they went through in terms of his mother’s mental illness. Pinto really embodies what it can be like living with someone who is severely mentally ill.

The setting of the novel takes place in India and revolves around a family of four. Imelda, or as she is more often called, Em, is the mother and is unfortunately prone to bouts of bi-polar and schizophrenic like behavior and is frequently hospitalized for suicide attempts. The story details how Em met Austine, or The Big Hoom, as she often calls him and how the courtship shortly changed when Em started to exhibit some strange behaviors. As Em struggles through her madness, her son puts together their family’s story. Em’s children are sadly exposed to situations that no one should ever have to deal with. They are constantly worrying about her mental state, if she is manic or depressive and if they need to worry about her attempting to take her own life. In one passage, Pinto perfectly sums up what is is like to have someone you love be effected so severely by mental illness:

“Madness is enough. It is complete, sufficient unto itself. You can only stand outside it, as a woman might stand outside a prison in which her lover is locked up. From time to time, a well-loved face will peer out and love floods back. A scrap of cloth flutters and it becomes a sign and a code and a message and all that you want it to be. Then it vanishes, and you are outside the dark tower again.”

Mental illness is heartbreaking, especially for the loved ones as it turns everyone’s world upside down. The support isn’t the same either, it’s not like a family member has cancer and everyone can understand the situation and can sympathize with it, so often loved ones will feel alienated and alone as mental illness is so unique and still not fully understood. While Em’s situation scars her family, it also ultimately brings them together as well. The ending of the story brings some solace for Em, for her loved ones, and is heart warming for the reader.

My one complaint with this novel was the constant use and ever changing nicknames of the characters. I imagine that because this book is somewhat autobiographical the nicknames come from Pinto’s own experiences, but in terms of this novel, it was a bit jarring and unnecessary. If you removed the nicknames, the story would have still been just as effective.

Overall an eye-opening novel into the life and times of a family dealing with a loved ones mental illness, a story, that is not told often enough.