Mark Sakamoto’s 2014 Canadian bestseller has been on my to-read list for a while. Forgiveness is a sort-of-memoir, focusing heavily on his family background. It begins with the stories of his grandparents and their opposing experiences in WWII. His maternal grandfather, Ralph MacLean, is of Scottish background and grows up in adverse circumstances (poverty, abusive father) on a small island off Canada’s east coast. When WWII is declared, Ralph sees joining the military as his opportunity for a better life- unfortunately he’s sent to Hong Kong, which the British had already abandoned as unwinnable but Canada’s Prime Minister sees as his opportunity to prove Canadian mettle. Ralph spends years in a prisoner of war camp in Hong Kong before being shipped to an even worse camp in Japan. Miraculously, he survives until the camp is liberated.
His paternal grandparents do not have it much better. They are born in Vancouver to Japanese immigrants, with increasing anti-Asian prejudice forming the background to their early years. Their war years are a different sort of hardship and indignity than Ralph’s- despite being Canadians born and raised, they are forcibly shipped over a 1000km inland to the frigid Canadian prairie. Ostensibly the purpose is security- to protect against the possibility of their being Japanese spies- but the reality has economic underpinnings, with their property on the coast being seized without compensation and their being forced to work as extremely low paid farm hands housed in barely converted livestock sheds.
After the war is over, Ralph gets off the train in Calgary and the Sakamotos remain in Alberta, having no money to return to the coast. While this sets the stage for the author’s story to begin (Ralph’s parents to be born, meet, marry, have children), Sakamoto is focused on the psychology of how they left their own WWII horrors behind and built full, happy lives- his theory is that it is forgiveness. The rest of the story skips through what feels like an inspiring Canadian origin story- mixed race child raised in the middle class with access to affordable post-secondary school, including law school- before taking a turn in the final act, describing the author’s struggles with his mother and her mental health issues. The “gift of forgiveness’ that Sakamoto receives from his grandparents is what allows him to make peace with his mother and move forward with grace.
I don’t read a lot of memoirs, so I’m not sure how this book compares to others in the genre. I did find it enlightening on the history aspect (unsurprisingly, Canadian history textbooks aren’t expansive on Japanese ‘resettlement’ during the war, and I had no idea about the Hong Kong theater of war), and inspiring on the attitude aspect. It was a worthwhile, thoughtful read.