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The Winter of Content : FICTION : WHAT THE SCARECROW SAID, By Stewart David Ikeda (Harper Collins: $24; 445 pp.)

June 30, 1996|Donna Kato | Donna Kato is a journalist based in Northern California

The labor contractions came on strong and urgent, but Bill Fujita's mother was determined that her son be born in California, just 24 hours away. On board a ship from Japan, she had her husband bind her legs together so that their child would not emerge until they were in America.

So begins Stewart David Ikeda's first novel, "What the Scarecrow Said," a layered epic of one Japanese American family told from the perspective of William Hiroshi Fujita, born in 1897 aboard the U.S. steamer, Pacific Angel.

The story is anchored in Fujita's present: October 1944. From that point on the time line, the tale glimpses back to the events and circumstances that took him from Los Angeles' Little Tokyo to the unlikely locale of Juggeston, Mass.

"What the Scarecrow Said" is actually two stories, interwoven to make one, with characters that are neither sentimental nor unrealistically triumphant. It skips the moralizing that so frequently accompanies books about historical injustice--especially internment camps.

In Fujita, we find a hero who is not very heroic but appears courageous simply because of the way he handles situations he cannot avoid. Though he is gracious and dignified, he can also be stubborn, vindictive and unforgiving.

He arrives in Juggeston in a worn, lightweight coat just as a bitter winter is about to descend upon the New England farm town. His new home is with the widow Margaret Kelly, a nurse whose late husband was the local doctor. Outraged by the evacuation of Japanese Americans on the West Coast, she believes it to be her duty to help get at least one man out of the camps by hiring him to help her start farming the land around her house.

The man sent her way is Fujita, college-educated and owner of a nursery in Pasadena before he was forced to go to a settlement in Gila, Ariz.

As expected, the Juggeston folks aren't too keen about having a "Jap," as they refer to him, in their midst, but they show restraint out of respect for Kelly. More ignorant than vicious, their initial apprehension turns to curiosity once the stranger arrives. There's even a comic turn with the town's gas station owner, a bumbling grease monkey with a raging libido.

The closest neighbors to the nurse and nurseryman are war widow Livvie Tufteller and her "eight-and-one-quarter-year-old" son, Garvin. With both the Kelly and Tufteller houses high on a hill, the townspeople have dubbed the area Widow's Peak.

It is here that the foursome form a fragile and tentative bond as they work to make their barren land bloom with vegetation and flowers. And watching over their seedlings as well as their growing friendship and kinship is a scarecrow erected and dressed by Kelly in costumes that both amuse and alarm the Juggeston gossips.

On this hilltop, Fujita takes charge. Agriculture is, after all, what he knows best. At first, he is frustrated by the soil and weather conditions so unlike his native California. But he rallies the widows and young Garvin to help him build a greenhouse and nurture the seeds that will, he hopes, come to fruition in the spring.

Garvin, at first is afraid and suspicious of this stranger who he thinks looks like Bela Lugosi. Yet he is drawn to Fujita's gentle temperament, so unlike his late father.

Together, they plant a coin in the scarecrow's straw torso as an offering in the hopes that in return, the scarecrow will protect the land and seeds through the winter.

Fujita explains: "And sometimes--just sometimes--it gives you back something even more valuable than you gave it originally."

But this soft-spoken, introspective gentleman also harbors something in his own gut. It is a secret he cannot speak of and a simmering, irrational anger over a mysterious woman who taunts him through postcards with no return address.

Kelly and Tufteller try to extract information about Fujita's correspondent, sure that the slightly sinister cards hold a clue to a past and an ongoing search he won't talk about except in short answers that only lead to more questions that are too awkward to ask.

Over the cold winter, though, he begins to thaw. The widows learn of his childhood and his immigrant parents, Ichiro and Tamie, who married after an exchange of photographs. They're startled when they realize that this man, so seemingly alone in their world, actually has a family and friends and roots that leave him yearning and grieving for a life he can no longer go back to.

At the same time, Fujita, so careful at first not to intrude into the lives of the widows, finds it harder to remain detached. He sees an innate goodness in both women, whom he works with almost daily as they cultivate the land together. There's also Garvin, whom he's taken to calling "Pal" and who seems to thrive doing the assigned tasks on the farm.

Seimei, on, giri is Japanese for life, debt and obligation. "Scarecrow" details how these words are interpreted by each of the characters. Ikeda has written a story in the context of actual historical events, but creates a tale full of vivid movement and fresh insight.

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