Stories exist on a Bell Curve, and a perhaps unpleasant truth is that our insatiable craving is for those at least three standard deviations from the mean. Toward the violent/dramatic at either end. Ie: Joan of Arc at one end, Jeffrey Dahmer at the other. In Alaska I found a story that exists at both ends, or at least it exists in violence, drama, cruelty and injustice at one end. At the other may lie a transcendent normalcy.
Remember Snow Falling on Cedars? The novel by David Guterson, winner of the Pen Faulkner Award in 1995 and a blockbuster movie in 1999, had as a core theme, racism. Specifically anti-Japanese and Japanese anti-American racism before and during WWII. I loved the soundtrack, bought the CD minutes after exiting the movie and am listening to it now. But the soundtrack doesn’t match the story I found, which will never have a soundtrack because it will never be a novel made into a movie. Why not? Because decency and fairness do not make good novels/movies. Indeed, this story would have had no effect on me at all had it not been for my exposure to its dark twin in Cedars.
The population of Ketchican, Alaska, in 1942 was officially 4,700. In reality, it was less than half that, since the census included several neighboring villages and an Aleut refugee camp halfheartedly thrown together after Japanese bombings of the Aleutian Islands. People of Japanese ancestry were not permitted American citizenship until 1952, so Kichirobei (“Jimmy”) Tatsuda and his wife, Sen Seike, could not have been “Americans” even if in 1910 they’d immigrated to a state. But they didn’t; they immigrated to Alaska, which wouldn’t become a state for 42 more years. They settled in tiny Ketchican and opened a boarding house, then in 1916 a grocery. Their five children worked beside Jimmy and Sen Seike in the grocery, attending Ketchican’s schools.
After Pearl Harbor, the three Tatsuda sons, Charley, Bill and Jimmy Jr., despite having no official citizenship whatever, enlisted in U.S. Armed Forces, eventually receiving military decorations. But the senior Tatsudas and their daughters, like 120,000 others of Japanese ancestry, were forcibly taken from their home in Ketchican and placed in an internment camp. Their home and business, like those of the Japanese family in Cedars, were empty, abandoned. And this is where the story leaps to the other end of the Bell Curve.
Small towns can be narrow-minded, intolerant and suffocating, depending on the people who live in them. But in places like Alaska, where cold and isolation demand mutuality for survival, there’s little room for institutionalized social savagery. Even now, people look out for each other, even for those they don’t like. Alcoholism, for example, is epidemic in Alaska, but people do not call the police on drunks. It isn’t done. Cabbies, bus drivers, restaurant and shop owners instead merely make sure the inebriated are taken home. The general attitude is one of somber pity rather than censure.
And that attitude must have been present in 1942, when the people of Ketchican didn’t usurp the Tatsuda’s business and didn’t seize ownership of their home. Instead, they preserved everything, and waited. They must have repaired a leaking roof, replaced frozen and burst water pipes, kept out rodents and the occasional hibernating bear. After the war, the Tatsudas came home, to an intact home. They reopened their grocery. Everything was as it had been.
The Tatsuda’s grocery is still there. Now owned by Bill Tatsuda Jr. and his daughter, Katherine, it just looks like a basic, small-town grocery. There are pickup trucks in the parking lot, and a local woman sells terrific homemade deviled eggs from a cooler inside. Tatsuda IGA has no soundtrack; its story will not win the Pen Faulkner or an Academy Award for cinematography. Few of the multiple thousand tourists from the cruise ships have need of groceries, and even if they wandered far enough from the pretty shops near the docks to see Tatsuda’s IGA, they wouldn’t see the story. Like all things magical, it’s hidden, in plain sight. Just a little, ordinary grocery, but the secret heart of a nation, I think.