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(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Like Kadohata’s first novel, Kira-Kira is set within the tightly knit world of a Japanese American family in the American South in the 1950’s. The novel’s title is actually the first word her sister Lynn, who is four years older, teaches the narrator, Katie Takeshima. In Japanese, Kira-Kira means “glittering.” To the consternation of their traditional mother, Katie and Lynn apply kira-kira to everything they like, including Kleenex tissue. Even though the two sisters are very close, Kadohata shows how each views the world slightly differently. This occurs when a dog attacks them, and each credits the other with saving her life.

Soon, Katie’s parents decide to move to rural Georgia. There, Japanese Americans work as chicken sexers. Right after a chick hatches, the sexers determine its gender. The description of Katie and Lynn’s travel with their parents and an uncle to Georgia is told by Katie in Kadohata’s trademark style of observant detachment and with a keen eye for what really captures the attention of a quirky young girl.

Throughout, Kira-Kira is more direct in pointing out the pervasive attitude of racism in 1950’s America than was evident in Kadohata’s first novel. The Japanese Americans must pay two dollars more for a motel room in the back, and at school, the Caucasian children do not talk to them for a long time. The uncle’s wish to become a land surveyor is shown to be an impossible one despite his qualifications, as non-Caucasian applicants are routinely rejected.

Yet the focus of Kira-Kira lies on Katie’s deadpan narration of growing up in a slightly off-kilter environment. At her first day at school, she is ready to go home immediately. Unlike Lynn, whom Katie describes as a straight-A genius, Katie is bored in school and relies on Lynn to get by with steady C’s. When their little brother, Samson Ichiro Takeshima, is born, both girls take care of him while their mother soon returns to work in the poultry processing plant.

Just as the first signs of Lynn’s sickness are revealed when Katie is ten and a half in the winter of 1961, Lynn finally wins the friendship of the Caucasian girl Amber and begins to show romantic interest in the Caucasian boy Gregg. On a Takeshima family camping trip that includes Amber and coincides with Gregg and his friend camping out nearby, the age differences between Katie and Lynn are apparent. While Lynn gets her first shy kiss from Gregg, Katie dreams of an imaginary lover, Joe-John Abondondalarama, who is more like a fairy-tale prince. As Lynn spends more time with Amber, Katie also begins to long for a girlfriend of her own age.

Family triumph and tragedy follow each other. Katie finally finds a girlfriend of her own just as Amber drops Lynn and Gregg moves out of state. The Takeshimas finally buy a house of their own, a purchase toward which Katie and Lynn contribute one hundred dollars, all of their pocket money that they persistently saved for this purpose throughout the years. However, Lynn’s illness becomes a severe case of anemia. Through Lynn’s diary, Kadohata reveals that for all her patient suffering, Lynn is no saint. She admits to liking the additional privacy of her own sickroom, not shared by anyone.

On New Year’s Day, 1963, Lynn dies. Katie is stunned, as nobody was with Lynn when she died early in the morning. Enraged, her father smashes the window of a Cadillac belonging to Mr. Lyndon, the bully and owner of the factory whose rabbit traps once caught Samson’s leg. Yet the family overcomes shock, anger, and grief and holds a moving funeral for Lynn. As it was her sister’s last wish, Katie gives a eulogy. In keeping with Buddhist tradition, the Takeshimas build a family altar for Lynn and commemorate her spirit finally leaving on the forty-ninth day after her death. The father apologizes to Mr. Lyndon and moves to another job. Katie even improves her grades. Over Christmas, 1963, the family travels to California for a vacation, and Katie is sure...

(The entire section is 3,360 words.)