After a succession of young adult novels, Shikoku-based writer Suzanne Kamata returns to adult fiction with “The Baseball Widow,” out from Wyatt-MacKenzie Publishing on Oct. 5.
Kamata weaves multiple narratives throughout a cross-cultural study of Japan and the United States. Bicultural marriage, returnee struggles, teenage exploitation, culture shock, mental health and, of course, baseball, all converge in a gripping emotional conflict. Yet the book is also engaging as a look at everyday life in modern-day Japan, particularly in the nation’s demanding youth sports culture.
The pinnacle of youth baseball success is famously measured by going to Koshien, the annual national spring invitationals and summer tournaments for high school baseball players. In the novel, Hideki Yamada, a teacher and baseball coach in rural Shikoku, reaches toward the Koshien dream when a talented returnee, Daisuke Uchida, joins his small public school team.
But at the center of the novel is Christine, Hideki’s American wife. Christine is an idealistic teacher and would-be activist who finds herself increasingly marginalized as Hideki pursues his dreams. Not technically a widow, Kamata’s title refers to Christine’s deepening feelings of isolation. As an outsider in Japanese culture and as a lonely wife and mother, she struggles to raise bicultural children — one bullied, the other with multiple disabilities — all without the help of her husband, who is well-meaning but often absent due to the overwhelming commitments of Japanese sport.
Kamata also focuses on Daisuke, the young baseball star returning from Atlanta with his family to live in rural Japan for the first time. Daisuke’s narrative not only highlights the culture clashes he experiences as a returnee, but also reveals his parent’s dissolving marriage and his budding relationship with classmate Nana Takai, a fellow outsider grappling with poverty and flirting with Japan’s seedy underside of teenage prostitution.
The primary appeal of the novel is Kamata’s unflinching portrayal of her characters. Each distinctly flawed human, from Hideki and Christine to Daisuke and Nana, stumble toward growth and reconciliation with loved ones and, most importantly, with themselves. Their complicated lives leave no single character to completely admire or respect, and Kamata offers no pat resolutions for either of the main narratives — her characters can only take steps toward continuing their emotional growth and hope for better understanding in the future.
Although the novel occasionally fails to maintain a balance between the two main storylines, Kamata’s authentic glimpse into Japanese life and society is appealing and her prose deftly exposes her characters’ flaws while evoking empathy. “The Baseball Widow” is a moving read of great emotional depth.
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