Reviewed by Menaka Raman-Wilms
Mark Sakamoto’s Forgiveness: A Gift from My Grandparents is a book that is both devastating and uplifting in its two Canadian experiences of the Second World War. The work is the true account of Sakamoto’s grandparents as they survived World War II from vastly different positions, and despite the struggles, emerged resilient.
Sakamoto’s grandmother, Mitsue, was born a Canadian in British Columbia but experienced the segregation of being Japanese in a country that discriminated against her. As the war begins, her family experiences increased racism and human rights violations along with the rest of the Japanese-Canadian community, and slowly have their way of life and freedom taken away from them.
With the progression of the war, her family is forced from their home in Vancouver and relocated to a farm in Alberta. They lose their possessions, their community, and their freedom to make decisions, but still maintain the resolve to push on together. Sakamoto’s grandfather, Ralph, experiences a very different war. As a young man from the Magdalen Islands, he enlists as a soldier in order to travel and experience the world beyond his home. Shipped out to Hong Kong, he is captured as a prisoner of war and kept in a POW camp. Amongst the illness, starvation, and degradation, he fights to survive and longs to return to Canada.
Both of these stories are engrossing. Not only do they portray the diverse tolls the war took on Canadians, but there is a powerful symmetry to seeing the unique struggles experienced by both Mitsue and Ralph, and by knowing that their lives, which are so different during the war, will soon come together.
The latter third of Forgiveness examines the author’s own experiences, particularly focusing on some of the personal struggles faced by his immediate family. Though relating his grandparents’ history to his own life would seem to tie things together, it’s not quite effective. The story takes diversions into particular aspects of Sakamoto’s life that don’t have clear connections to his grandparents, and though he evokes the idea of forgiveness as something taught to him by his grandparents and something that he can apply in his own life, it doesn’t seem quite enough to solidify the book.
Despite this, the stories of Mitsue and Ralph are engaging and evocative enough to carry the work. Their dramatically different experiences of the second world war highlight a period of Canadian history when personal freedom and autonomy couldn’t be taken for granted, and when resilience was key to survival. By exemplifying extreme perseverance and resolve, both of their stories illustrate the strength of the human spirit.
Forgiveness: A Gift from My Grandparents is published by Harper Collins.