Proving that children’s literature is endlessly fertile, rich and protean, we find Somewhere Among, a unique, resonant and disturbing book-length poem by Annie Donwerth-Chikamatsu. A novel of subtle grace and undefinable beauty, Somewhere Among is unlike anything you have read before, and will haunt you for some time to come.
Somewhere Among tells the story of 11-year-old Ema, who lives in Japan with her American mother and Japanese father. When Ema’s mother has a difficult pregnancy, she and Ema are housed with her father’s parents: Jiichan, her happy-go-lucky grandfather, and Obaachan, her cold and overbearing grandmother.
The story takes place over the course of the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States, and the anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Everywhere, Ema seems to encounter bullying – she and her mother are bullied by Obaachan; Obaachan bullies Jiichan; Ema is bullied by a school punk named Masa, who is, in turn, bullied by his own mother. Even Ema’s father is bullied by his bosses at work. At times, it seems that the whole world is an unending spectacle of bad behavior.
Donwerth-Chikamatsu uses the microcosm to explore the macrocosm – how can the world be at peace, she wonders, when its people can’t be at peace with themselves? So much of the bad behavior that Ema sees every day is motivated by other bad behavior, creating a cycle that makes the world increasingly intolerant, hostile and disengaged. Annie Donwerth-Chikamatsu is saying that this cycle of abuse has ramifications both personally and internationally, and that it cannot and will not be broken until we strive to be better, do better and live more consciously. It is a bold and daring gambit to mirror historical events like Pearl Harbor Day and Sept. 11th with more mundane, personal hardships, but the case Donwerth-Chikamatsu argues is a persuasive one.
Ema sees the chance for renewal and second chances in her soon-to-arrive baby sister. Few events are more positive and optimistic than newborn babies, and the arrival of the baby helps mend the rifts within Ema’s family, just as the cycle of life can help renew our faith in our fellowman.
It is a daring choice for Donwerth-Chikamatsu to write her book in free-verse poems. At first, the reader is convinced that this may be little more than an authorial trick; once into the story, however, the reader realizes it would be near-impossible to tell any other way. The spare language of free-verse poetry connects directly with the deep and powerful emotional current that runs through the book. At times wistful and full of hurt, her language also has the simple power of either a lament or a prayer. Her versifying compounds the mighty emotional effect of the story, and its last few lines will linger with you long after you close the book.
Annie Donwerth-Chikamatsu lives in Tokyo, Japan, and this is her first novel. Her previously work has appeared in Hunger Mountain, Highlights, Y.A.R.N., and other magazines. Somewhere Among is a dazzling achievement, and we can expect great things from her. Highly recommended.