Like most little kids, my brother and I would wake up shockingly early on Christmas morning. And like most parents, my mom and dad had a weird aversion to being dragged out of bed at 4:00 a.m. The compromise was that we could wake them at 7:00 — with a cup of tea — and not a moment before.
Three hours is a lot of time to kill when you’re almost wetting yourself with excitement at the thought of ALL! THOSE! PRESENTS! under the tree. We would sneak downstairs to marvel at the gifts that had miraculously appeared overnight, perhaps shaking one or two in an effort to learn their secrets.
The smartest thing my parents did to buy themselves more time was to slip a new book into the stockings that were carefully laid at the foot of our beds on Christmas Eve. Some of the great classics of children’s literature were introduced to me in this way. I have happy memories of discovering Little Women in my Christmas stocking when I was 9 or 10. I curled up in my bed with a bag of chocolate Santas and lost myself completely in the world of Amy, Beth, Jo, and Meg. Utter bliss!
But the book that rocked my world was The Secret of the Samurai Sword. It was about a girl named Celia who was sent to visit her grandmother in Kyoto. There was a mystery, of course (something about the ghost of a samurai), but the most fascinating part of the book for me was Celia’s discovery of Japanese culture. As I read, I had the sensation of a whole new world opening up for me. I was insanely jealous of Celia, and wanted desperately to be her — or at least, to be the kind of girl who travels to far-off exotic lands. I was captivated by the romance of being catapulted into an alien life.
And I was dumfounded by the character of Sumiko, the Nisei neighbour of Celia’s grandmother. This was my first inkling that it was possible to struggle with one’s cultural identity: as an American born of Japanese parents, Sumiko was caught in the middle of two cultures and bitterly resented her “in-between” status in Japan.
I had no idea such a concept even existed; having moved to Canada from my native England just shy of my fourth birthday, I easily and completely assimilated in about five minutes. I thought that’s what people did. My parents had accents and sometimes used different words (calling cigarettes “fags,” for example, no matter how much we pleaded with them to stop it, already), but I never felt any angst about where I belonged.
The Secret of the Samurai Sword was written by Phyllis A. Whitney, a prolific writer who published adult romance novels as well as young adult mysteries. She was born of American parents in Japan in 1903, and later moved with them to China and the Philippines. She didn’t actually live in her passport country until she was 15.
Between 1949 and 1977 she wrote 20 juvenile mysteries, and I devoured almost every one. Her main characters were girls, but ah, what girls they were! Spunky, adventurous, and smart, they always solved the mystery in the end. In fact, if Louisa May Alcott had written Little Women 100 years later, Jo March would have fit the Phyllis A. Whitney heroine mold perfectly.
The passage of The Secret of the Samurai Sword I remember most vividly was the description of a bento box. I’m not a fan of Japanese food, but I do recall desperately wanting to have a red lacquer bento box, with its cute little dividers, instead of the plastic Barbie lunchbox I carried. That book planted in me the desire to get to Kyoto someday. (It hasn’t happened yet, but it’s been high on my bucket list for 35 years.)
Ms. Whitney’s upbringing as a third culture kid obviously shaped her worldview and influenced her writing. There’s a wonderful quote from her on her website:
“Perhaps I could say that most of my writing has been concerned with understanding between people. Whether of different races, or religions, or even in the same family, I tried in my books… to deal with the subject of understanding the other fellow.”
She died in 2008, at 104 years old, after a career that spanned five decades. Her YA novels are out of print now, but you can find them on Amazon for a buck or two.
I’ll forever be indebted to Phyllis A. Whitney. She inspired me to explore new cultures, and made me see at a young age that it’s possible to find yourself in a place you’d never think of looking.