“Naomi Soledad León Outlaw has had a lot to contend with in her young life, her name for one. Then there are her clothes (sewn in polyester by Gram), her difficulty speaking up, her status at school as “nobody special.” But according to Gram’s self-prophecies, most problems can be overcome with positive thinking. Luckily, Naomi also has her carving to strengthen her spirit. And life with Gram and her little brother, Owen, is happy and peaceful. That is, until their mother reappears after 7 years of being gone, stirring up all sorts of questions and challenging Naomi to discover who she really is.”
Naomi and Owen were left with their great-grandmother in Southern California when their mother decided that she didn’t want the responsibility of caring for them anymore. Owen was born with physical disabilities and this was too much for their mother to handle. Now, seven years and several surgeries later, Owen is thriving but he still has some obvious disabilities. Naomi is happy at home in the trailer with Owen and Gran and their close community of neighbors. Then their mother reappears with a new name, Skyla, and a new boyfriend. She wants to take Naomi to live with her. Just Naomi.
Naomi and Owen are half Mexican but they have no connection to the Mexican side of their family since their mother refused to let their father see them after they divorced. He has sent money to Gran to help out though. Now, to help bolster support for Gran to be able to keep the kids they head to Mexico to try to find him. They know that he always attends the Oaxaca Radish carving competitions around Christmas so they head there. (Yes, that is a real thing.)
This story highlights the world of a young girl who doesn’t realize how much her family turmoil has affected her until it is time for her to stand up for herself and her brother. Her world is widened by meeting her Mexican relatives and by finding out more about her parents. Kids whose parents have left them imagine all kinds of scenarios about them returning. When it doesn’t work out in the way they expect, it can be devastating. Gran has tried to shield them from the truth but it is coming out now and they have to deal with the consequences. Gran has always been their rock and now they see her scared and unsure of what to do. Naomi and Owen react differently which accurately represents their ages and personalities.
This is a middle grade book. I’d recommend it for any kid who doesn’t know quite where they fit in the world. Also, seriously, radish carving – that is a weirdly interesting competition.
While growing up in Versailles, an Indiana farm community, Linda Furiya tried to balance the outside world of Midwestern America with the Japanese traditions of her home life. As the only Asian family in a tiny township, Furiya's life revolved around Japanese food and the extraordinary lengths her parents went to in order to gather the ingredients needed to prepare it. As immigrants, her parents approached the challenges of living in America, and maintaining their Japanese diets, with optimism and gusto. Furiva, meanwhile, was acutely aware of how food set her apart from her peers: She spent her first day of school hiding in the girls' restroom, examining her rice balls and chopsticks, and longing for a Peanut Butter and Jelly sandwich. Bento Box in the Heartland is an insightful and reflective coming-of-age tale. Beautifully written, each chapter is accompanied by a family recipe of mouth-watering Japanese comfort food.
Linda Furiya grew up in rural Indiana, far away from the traditional Japanese culture that her parents tried hard to emulate. She didn’t understand why her lunches were different than other kids’. She was embarrassed to hear her parents trying to talk to people in public, especially when other people didn’t make an effort to understand them. She didn’t want to invite people over to her house because it was so different than other peoples’.
Her parents had amazing life stories that she didn’t appreciate until she was much older. Her father was a U.S. citizen who went back to Japan as a child. He was then sent away as an indentured servant. He ended up as a Russian translator in the Japanese army during World War II. He came back to the United States and worked in the poultry farming industry because it was the only work he could get.
Her mother was the daughter of rice merchants in Tokyo. Her mother died and her father remarried and had other children. This dropped her status in the family to that of a servant. After the war, she lived on her own and had a job but gave it up to marry a stranger who lived the United States.
Her parents longed to have familiar Japanese food but couldn’t find it in Indiana. They made monthly trips to stores in Cincinnati or Chicago to find the ingredients they needed or had things shipped from Japan. Japanese comfort food became a common link between people who were very different but only had each other to rely on.
The author tells the story of growing up as the child of immigrants through the food that they loved. Each chapter ends with a recipe. Most of them are heavy on the meat so I won’t be trying them but there is one recipe for Rice Balls that sounds good. There is also a dessert recipe using agar agar instead of gelatin to make a Jello-like dish that I’d like to try since gelatin is made from animals and agar agar is from algae.
The author doesn’t shy away from talking about how she treated her parents horribly for being Japanese. It wasn’t until after college that she lived in a city with a large Asian population and understood that being Asian wasn’t automatically a bad thing. This book is a great look into the immigrant experience through the eyes of a child.
About Linda Furiya
Furiya grew up in rural Indiana, where her Japanese family went to great lengths to acquire traditional Asian ingredients. She became a journalist and food writer; Bento Box In The Heartland, her memoir of growing up in the Midwest, is her first book. She lives in Vermont.