A child born into nobility is usually assured a position somewhere in the royal hierarchy. Not so in Fifty Words for Rain, a coming-of-age story in which Nori, a biracial child born into the Japanese aristocracy during World War II, faces oppression and fights for acceptance in her own family.
Abandoned by her single mother with the parting words, “Do as you are told, and everything will be fine,” eight-year-old Nori finds herself on the doorstep of strangers: her grandparents’ grand Kyoto compound in post-World War II Japan. Yuko, Nori’s maternal grandmother, takes her in not out of benevolence but to conceal her from public view. Nori’s father is a Black American GI, which horrifies Yuko, who sees him as an enemy both because of his race and his nationality. Yuko sequesters Nori in the attic so she will never be seen by outsiders. Nori’s grandfather, traveling most of the time, is complicit.
Yuko orders Nori’s skin to be chemically treated, belittles and humiliates her, and deprives her of a normal life. Physically and mentally abused, Nori has but one ally, a sympathetic maid who is her only link to the outside.
Endurance and hope
Although Nori’s home seems like a house of horrors—and it is—author Asha Lemmie refrains from making Nori a victim. Nori may have inherited the stiff upper lip valued by royalty; under duress she figures out how to bear her treatment with stoical endurance, transporting herself to another plane.
What does she think, this prisoner without permission to dream? She is grateful for the comforts of her room, more than she had when living with her mother. She treasures the view from her attic window: green grass, peach trees, the pond with colorful koi fish. With a tutor and books, she savors learning. And because she is bright, she is quick to understand the basic rules of her grandmother’s house. Stay out of sight unless summoned. Don’t ask. Don’t question. Don’t think. In her grandmother’s words, “It is good for a woman to learn silence.”
Nori aspires to please her grandmother; nothing more. She doesn’t know how to yearn for more. But suddenly her world opens up like a lotus flower when her half-brother Akira comes to live with the family.
As her relationship with her brother develops, Nori suddenly has options she never dreamed of. Lemmie skillfully portrays an authentic sibling relationship: there is adoration on both sides, but also the petty annoyances and ribbing that make for a realistic portrayal of a brother and sister. As Akira empowers Nori, Yuko finds a way to shut that down once and for all. Or so she thinks.
The siblings’ bond
Fifty Words for Rain is a sweeping saga through several decades and continents with characters you come to care for. A fine example of historical fiction that feels relevant in today’s world, its setting in a Japanese house of luxury at the end of a brutal war provides a contrast between freedom and imprisonment, privilege and deprivation. Lemmie is adept at character development, especially with the two devoted siblings whose affection and respect ultimately result in a bond that can never be broken.
Gut-wrenching, tender, epic, and tragic, Fifty Words for Rain will prompt conversations on a variety of timely topics: birthright, racism, and an antiquated system of entitlement. The surprising ending might just predict a sequel is in the works. If so, we’ll be on the lookout.
Image description: The cover of Fifty Words for Rain, by Asha Lemmie. The title and author are in white text over an illustration of a pink-blossoming tree on a slate-blue background, with the sun behind it and diagonal lines like rain in front.
What, When, Where
Fifty Words for Rain, by Asha Lemmie. Dutton, Sept. 22, 2020. 464 pages, hardcover; $26. Get on bookshop.org.