There’s a really cool bookshop up in Bayfield, Wisconsin, called Honest Dog Books. My colleague, science teacher, Ms. Tracey Kast, told me about it during the pandemic. I wanted to support more independent businesses, so she recommended this store to me.
They have a nifty feature called “Surprise Me!” The website asks you to provide answers to a short questionnaire about your reading preferences. The bookstore experts will send you books they believe meet your interests.
I simply adore this idea. I worked at a small, independent children’s bookstore called Wonderland (as in “Alice in”) in high school, college, and second-job when I started teaching. Not only was it my second home and family, but a place that taught me the essential role that independent businesses have in communities. When we support local, independent, and/or small businesses, we lift up communities. When we support businesses owned by women, people of color, and families, we lift those people up.
The Wonderland staff and I (we call ourselves Wonderlites!) had to become experts on the books we sold to match the best books with each client.
This skill became essential as a teacher in my classroom to find books to stimulate their interest and love of reading.
I tried the “Surprise Me!” option because I felt overwhelmed by my ever-long reading list and nothing caught my eye. Plus, the pandemic had just swept over us, leaving many independent businesses in the lurch. This was such a great way to continue supporting small businesses when they needed it most!
The shop’s expert team (the Buckles-Ray family) sent me a copy of Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston’s The Legend of Fire Horse Woman. I mentioned in my questionnaire answers that Louise Erdrich is one of my favorite authors. The folks at Honest Dog Books are, too, and told me as much on the quaint brown-paper wrapping the book came in. It was so personalized! Needless to say, it was so much more fun ordering a book from these guys than it is from Amazon or Barnes & Noble!
The Legend of Fire Horse Woman spans three generations of women from Sayo, the matriarch born under the Fire Horse sign in Japan at the end of the nineteenth century to her granddaughter, Terri.
Sayo, her daughter Hana, and Terri — along with the rest of their family — find themselves confined in an internment camp in California as the United States entered World War II.
“A legend was being born. A history begun across the ocean on a volcanic island chain called Japan had arrived at a concentration camp in California’s high desert country.”Wakatsuki Houston 3
The concentration camps in Eastern Europe get a lot of attention. Indeed, the holocaust of Jews, political prisoners, Romanis, and homosexuals during World War II was horrific — a bloody stain on the history of the world. Americans like to pretend they had nothing to do with concentrations camps.
“The white eyes stole the land before, and now they steal the water.”Wakatsuki Houston 302
This is problematic because the United States government long concentrated populations of American Indians on reservations, prisoners of the Civil War, and incarcerated Japanese Americans in camps.
“‘Thirty years ago, they imprisoned a thousand of my people and force-marched them a hundred and seventy-five miles away to another fort prison,’ Cloud said bitterly. “Feet bleeding, hungry and dying of thirst, they were driven like maimed horses by the white eyes.’ He sighed. ‘I was an infant then, but we have not forgotten. I left as a young man, discouraged, wanting to leave that life behind, travel the world. But now the spirits are calling me back. I must go.”Wakatsuki Houston 304
“We see this internment camp as another reservation, a way to take away your power.”Wakatsuki Houston 320
Americans are guilty, too, of confining human beings without charges to camps with harsh living conditions.
“‘It is wrong the government has imprisoned us . . . wrong to treat us as if we are the enemy. They also are bringing very bad karma upon themselves by desecrating the ancestral grounds of the ancient peoples who were here many, many years before the white ghosts arrived.”Wakatsuki Houston 40
The Legend of Fire Horse Woman doesn’t let readers forget that. The novel amplifies the voices of three Japanese-American women who survive internment at Manzanar.
The author, Wakatsuki Houston, is a survivor of these types of camps. Her most famous work, Farewell to Manzanar, details her experience as a prisoner in a camp. As a result, the experiences of Sayo, Hana, and Terri ring piercingly authentic in The Legend of Fire Horse Woman.
The novel additionally narrates the American immigrant experience. Sayo immigrates to the United States as a part of an arranged marriage. Her new life in California opens up many new possibilities for her; still, her star sign — the Fire Horse — keeps her on edge.
“She, after all, was a Fire Horse Woman. Hadn’t she defied the portents surrounding this birth sign, transforming morbid omens into qualities of courage, imagination, and splendor? Her history would not end her though she knew a history would begin her for those born within the barbed-wire fence.”Wakatsuki Houston 3
“They were so powerful and cunning, they acted independently from the family and could not be controlled by men.”Wakatsuki Houston 21
The symbol signifies disaster in her homeland, and Sayo feels like she must constantly battle this legacy in her new life in America.
“Matsubara Sayo wondered if her life was to end in this desert. Years of surviving in America had given her an invincibility and a wisdom that allowed her to accept hardship, tragedy, and betrayal and seem them simply as the underbelly of freedom. Was this prison camp another “underbelly”? Or was her journey in Bii Koko (the beautiful land), begun in Hiroshima thirty-nine years before, to end in this wasteland? Was she to ascend to the River of Souls in the clouds humiliated and defeated, cast out of the country by ‘white ghosts’ who saw all persons with Japanese blood as the enemy?”Wakatsuki Houston 3
One of the many characters who bring her solace is Cloud, an American Indian with whom she falls in love. His experience as an American Indian parallels Sayo’s as an immigrant and prisoner of a concentration camp.
“‘There are spirits in everything, don’t you think? . . . the rocks, the fish, the plants.’
‘Japanese believe that kami, gods, reside in all things, too.’
‘Well, I guess that is another thing we have in common.’”Wakatsuki Houston 124
As a result, ghosts of Cloud’s ancestors visit Terri in beautiful dances throughout her adjustment to the camp at Manzanar.
“Terri knows a tragedy has begun, and she watches transfixed as the figures in the crowd become warriors. The taiko drum beats a war chant as they whoop and holler; torches turn into spears and bows. Paint stains the faces and chest and arms. Their horses neigh and rear up on hind legs. The firebreak is thick with dust and the smell of sweating horses. Suddenly shots ring out, and the warriors fall. The crowd has disappeared, the drumming ceased. It is silent except for the wind blowing sand across the break, across the few bodies lying on the ground, their jackets ruffling in the breeze.”Wakatsuki Houston 181
Terri must navigate life in a camp as well as her feelings for one of the American soldiers at the camp who consistently shows her kindness. She works to understand the racial tensions pulling at her friendship with a young man plopped in the middle of a war.
“Terri does not fully understand why her family now lives in this foreign land, this glaring, naked expanse of sand surrounded by barbed wire and rattlesnakes and Indian ghosts.”Wakatsuki Houston 16
“She wishes there were movies in camp, but knows that’s silly dreaming. They don’t even have a school, yet, something Terri never thought she’d miss. Yes, school and books. Who would’ve guessed that? Most of the kids are bored like her, roaming around camp in groups”Wakatsuki Houston 81
Her grandmother’s stories — often told through flashbacks — help her along the way.
Her mother’s journey to find her way out of a patriarchal marriage that eats away her joy similarly models for Terri how to come into her own.
Hana always tried to be a good Japanese-American daughter, wife, and mother, as many second-generation children do. She finds herself in a traditional, loveless, arranged marriage like her mother.
“After twenty years of marriage, she has learned to make herself small and unnoticed”Wakatsuki Houston 30
Even amid the camp’s turmoil and oppression, she learns how to break free and come into her own.
“Her attitude differs from others, but she has learned from Sayo . . . that having a different opinion is not a sickness of the mind. It can even be a strength.”Wakatsuki Houston 101
Wakatsuki Houston’s heroines demonstrate the strength and resilience of women, especially women who battle racism, patriarchy, and immigrant discrimination throughout their lives. They triumph, though Wakatsuki Houston does not let their triumph overshadow the dangerous consequences of a nation that believes one race or gender is superior to another.
“Her destiny was not to continue the Matsubara line in the New World…She would extend Mentor’s line, the line of the Fire Horse Woman, outcasts in Japan, but heroines in America where they must realize this feminine power in order to survive and prevail.”Wakatsuki Houston 300
Rather than bringing disaster, the sign of the Fire Horse brings these women the strength they need to carve out spaces for themselves in a world that continuously denies them freedom and opportunity.
“Our tree has been cut at the root. But we can remain standing, even if blown by the greatest wind. We must hold on to the earth. Keep our feet on the ground.”Wakatsuki Houston 167
I’m so grateful Honest Dog Books sent me this novel! You can support Honest Dog Books by ordering this title from them, searching for a title you have on your reading list on their website, or requesting a “Surprise Me!” box of your own. Definitely find some way to support this fantastic shop! If I ever travel to northern Wisconsin, they can definitely expect a visit from me.
Trigger Warning: abuse (toxic relationship); arson; death; forced marriage; hallucinations; loss of a loved one; misogyny; racism; sexism; starvation; trauma; violence; war