WHAT HAPPENS when your childhood memories don’t match your family’s official narrative? So much of what we know about our earliest days is not the function of our own recollections, but the harvest of stories sown by those who raised us. We grow up hearing “do you remember when …” and “once when you were little …” and it becomes nearly impossible to distinguish between what we have been told and what we actually recall. Family stories, as they have been established, like history textbooks, do not originate from a place free of self-interest or prejudice, and perhaps all we can be sure of is our own emotional and sensory impressions.
In his fascinating and sweeping debut novel The Sun Gods, Jay Rubin, best known until now as a skilled translator of Haruki Murakami novels, explores historical revisionism in the context of family and country. His young protagonist, Bill Morton, has long felt that the life his widowed Christian pastor father has described, their family history, doesn’t gibe with his own raw childhood impressions. Why does Bill, a white Christian Seattle college student, engaged to another white Christian Seattle college student in 1959, have memories of Asian women laughing in a shared shower? Why can he still sometimes taste sand in his teeth and hear the wind screeching like a train outside? How can the taste of an authentic Japanese dish that he is presumably trying for the first time as an adult conjure such emotion? Who is Mitsu, and how does this foreign name make his heart ache?
When Bill begins to question his history and his father’s veracity, he learns that to uncover the truth of his past he must end relationships, abandon his faith, and explore worlds he once believed only existed in his subconscious. Interspersing chapters of Bill’s quest are chapters about his father Tom Morton’s story, beginning in 1939, when Bill was a toddler. Through both men’s accounts, the truth emerges, as does another question: are love and remembrance enough to heal wounds inflicted by deceit and pride?
We first meet Bill in a prologue in 1953, when, as he waits for the bus to high school, he is accosted by a mysterious one-armed stranger. Six years later, Bill hasn’t shaken the feeling that somehow his life doesn’t make sense. He goes through the motions — he has a pretty blond fiancée, he is graduating from university and preparing to do missionary work before seminary school — but, for reasons yet unknown to him, Japan beckons. When Bill shares his desire to do mission work there and asks about the nagging mysteries of his youth, his father explodes with rage.
The book travels back to 1939, with the newly widowed young Tom, living in Seattle with his two-year-old son, serving as the pastor of an all-Japanese congregation, delivering English sermons to the American-born Japanese church members. When a new member named Mitsuko joins, Tom notices. The young Japanese-born woman forms a quick and deep bond with the toddler Billy, and Tom soon invites her to be Billy’s babysitter. The three start to feel like a family, but some of Mitsuko’s old Japanese customs trouble Tom, who sees her practices as evil and un-Christian. Knowing that she has a tragic past and a good heart, he feels moved to mend her, ostensibly for Christ, but more likely for himself. One day, confronted with xenophobic rhetoric on the street, he has the epiphany that they should marry.
But trouble plagues their union from the start. Tom feels powerless in the face of Mitsuko’s sensuality, and anti-Japanese sentiment in Seattle grows as the Japanese army attacks China. Billy, he fears, is too keen to appropriate Mitsuko’s Japanese ways. Tom’s ambitions as a pastor — to become more renowned and more respected in the white Christian community — further widen the gulf between him and his new wife.
After the fight with his father in 1959, Billy breaks up with his confounded fiancée and finds work at a Japanese restaurant, where he begins to learn Japanese. As any obviously nonnative-looking speaker of an Asian language can attest, his even minimal proficiency makes him a sensation in the community. One night, the one-armed stranger from Billy’s past visits the restaurant. He introduces himself as Frank Sano and tells Billy they have a lot to talk about.
We travel back in time again, this time to 1941. The Japanese army has attacked Pearl Harbor, and tension in Mitsuko and Tom’s marriage — and in the city of Seattle — threatens not only the couple’s way of life, but the lives of all Japanese residing in the city. The Treasury Department impounds all Japanese investments. Police round up Japanese for FBI questioning. Seattle falls into a quiet blackout for fear of a Japanese attack. Mitsuko begs Tom to take her and Billy and other relations away before they are taken to an internment camp, but Tom refuses. Not only does Tom abandon his wife, but he also puts up no fight when she says she wants to keep Billy with her.
At the camp, the abandoned pair meet the warm and dashing Frank Sano — who, at the time, still has two arms to hoist small Billy up on his shoulders. Frank and Mitsuko form a bond in their anger against the United States and in their rejection of the so-called Christian values that accommodate such prejudice. In the overcrowded and poor conditions of the internment camp, Mitsuko, Frank, and Billy fortify each other and provide moments of joy and meaning. When an application to leave the internment camp circulates, Mitsuko and Frank must decide what they are willing to sacrifice to stay in the United States.
The final section returns to Bill’s present, as he searches for his stepmother Mitsuko in Japan and discovers, along the way, her family’s secrets, horrors, and promise for new beginnings. Rewriting his history, Bill hopes to create a more authentic present, but first he must atone for the sins of his father and his nation.
Rubin’s distinctive writing style proves once again that the finest translators are often the finest writers. His immense understanding of Japanese culture and history make him uniquely qualified to take up the subjects he tackles, and he does a superb job of capturing the effects that significant historical events have on individual lives.
The first few chapters are the book’s weakest: Bill’s fiancée Clare feels more like a plot device than a real person, the immediate conflict between Bill and his father could have used a bit more editorial direction, and at times Tom’s motivations also stretch the imagination. But overall, the characters are nuanced and humane, and the rich themes and vivid setting make The Sun Gods an immensely rewarding read.
Like those early childhood memories, The Sun Gods’ emotional and sensory impressions resonate long after turning the final page.