Sunday, August 14, 2005

little house near the chicken factory

After spending almost three months reading The Time of Our Singing, it was weird to plow through my next book—Kira-Kira by Cynthia Kadohata—in a weekend. Like following up a relationship with a one-night stand. Maybe it’s appropriate, then, that compared to Richard Powers’ intricate, choreographed style, Kadohata’s writing is raw, plainspoken and sometimes random. Just what I needed.

Kira-Kira (which means shining or glittery in Japanese) is technically a kids’ book. My mom was a children’s librarian, and I learned long ago that you can read Huckleberry Finn in the fifth grade and write your college thesis on Weetzie Bat (which I did, along with one of Kadohata’s other books, In the Heart of the Valley of Love).

Kira-Kira is narrated by Katie, a Japanese American girl living in 1950s Georgia, where her parents work long, grueling hours in various stages of chicken production. Kadohata, like Laura Ingalls Wilder, is able to write about desperate conditions while still conveying the essential selfishness of childhood. Katie, like Laura, idolizes her smart and sickly older sister and wants to help her parents, but can’t manage to do the dishes without complaining about it for a while first.

The book deals with some heavy subject matter—I cried till I got a headache—but never at the expense of Katie’s humorous, matter-of-fact voice. While Katie doesn’t always understand adults’ actions and motives, she never comes across as precious or even all that innocent. Kadohata herself seems to agree with her narrator: Adults are weird, but they love you, and they work hard for you, and growing up means doing things you never thought you’d do—from stealing to studying—to ensure your family’s survival.

(I would say that’s a theme of Kira-Kira, but Katie’s not big on themes. Asked to write a book report on The Call of the Wild, she writes, “Dogs are good pets to own because of their loyalty. Loyalty is the theme. That is a fine theme.”)

The only bad thing about Kira-Kira being meant for middle school students is that it didn’t take longer to read. It’s the one-night stand I’m hoping will call. Like thirteen years elapsed between Valley of Love and this book, so it's a legitimate worry. I went to a panel Kadohata was on, and she said she had an identity crisis and went and worked as secretary for a while, which I found comforting. Still, I’m glad she’s back.

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