No-No Boy follows the post-war lives of two young Seattleites: Ichiro Yamada and Kenji Kanno. Published in 1957, John Okada’s only novel takes a raw cross section of Japanese-American society and examines it through the eyes of these characters who made very different choices.
When called to the draft, Ichiro followed his mother’s guidance and answered “no” to both “loyalty questions,” resulting in imprisonment. After two years, he is released from prison to a community which abhors him for his decision, almost as much as he hates himself. Kenji, on the other hand, volunteered for combat, with the hesitant support of his father. He returns to Seattle as a hero, yet carrying an infected wound that is eating away at his life.
This was a tough book to get through because it is dark, ugly, and depressing. There are endless descriptions of hatred and bitterness among family members, friends, and strangers. Nearly every character is conscious of a hideous silence in their lives and attempts to fill it with noise like alcohol, foul language, and random hookups. Bleak is an understatement; I was almost compelled not to finish it.
Still, you’re haunted by the impression it rings true. Okada lived through the events he described; he was a student at the UW when his family was sent to an internment camp in Idaho and, like Kenji, he went on to serve in the U.S. military, translating commands to surrender (p. 256). Each character is so vividly painted, they must have some origin in real life – even, maybe, Ichiro’s mother, whose belief in Japanese victory drives her insane.
The best parts of the book are Ichiro’s internal monologues, where he wonders whether society will ever forgive him for being a “no-no boy” and allow him to live a normal life; whether the Japanese-American community will recover from its divisions; whether one day all he will see is “people” and not different races mistreating each other. He alternates between despair and hope.
. . . in time there will again be a place for me. I will buy a home and love my family and I will walk down the street holding my son’s hand . . . it will not matter about the past, for time will have erased it from our memories and there will be only joy and sorrow and sickness, which is the way things should be. (p. 52)
It is hard to give No-No Boy a rating. It’s truly a unique novel, being (as far as I know) the first of its kind and maybe the only novel on this particular aspect of the Japenese-American experience in WWII. There’s some moments of true brilliance, leading me to think Okada could have become a famous 20th-century author. However, apart from the overwhelmingly grim atmosphere, I found the ending to be disappointing. There were one or two potential plot twists that never came to fruition, so Ichiro’s character arc made little progress in the end. I’ll settle on a middle-of-the-road rating: 3 stars.