Nim and the War Effort
by Milly Lee; ill. by Yangsook Choi
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997
American history is far from spotless. Particularly where immigrants and people of color are concerned, our nation has often struggled to fulfill its founding promises of freedom and equality for all.
During World War II, for instance, the federal government relocated and “interned” more than 100,000 Japanese-Americans. Most were American citizens; many came from families that had been in the U. S. for generations.
And, while the federal government officially targeted only ethnic Japanese, many rank-and-file citizens weren’t so selective in their discrimination. Throughout the war with Japan, anti-Asian discrimination plagued communities across the country.
Milly Lee, growing up in San Francisco’s WWII-era Chinatown, felt this discrimination at work against her own family. Nim and the War Effort is not her autobiography, but the book was inspired by her childhood experiences.
Nim, the protagonist, is an ethnic Chinese girl who lives with her extended family in Chinatown during the war. Her grandfather and many of his friends wear special lapel pins–crossed Chinese and American flags–”so they will not be mistaken for the enemy.”
Born in the United States, Nim is desperate to prove her patriotism by winning her school’s newspaper drive. As the story opens, she’s running a close second to Garland Stephenson, a bully who likes to steal his papers from the vendors in Chinatown.
Nim, however, insists on acquiring her papers honestly. So, with the contest deadline looming, she walks alone to wealthy Nob Hill to canvass the large apartment buildings there.
Predictably, her strategy pays off, and she wins the contest. But that’s not really the point of the story.
What makes this book inspiring is Nim herself, and the way she leads her stern, traditional grandfather into a wider understanding of the meaning of family honor.
Instead of being paralyzed or divided by her dual identity as Chinese and American, Nim has the insight to blend the two heritages, drawing on the best of both.
On the Chinese side, she draws strength from a traditional focus on family honor. Devotion to family honor fuels her integrity as she collects papers for the contest. And it drives her to see the contest through to the end, even when she thinks Garland is certain to win.
On the American side, she draws motivation from her patriotism. She doesn’t just want to participate in the contest, she wants to win–for the good of the country’s war effort and to prove that she’s a “real” American. So she pulls her squeaky wagon far out of her way to visit Nob Hill, and she risks her grandfather’s wrath to make sure the winning papers are delivered to her school on time.
Above all, she shows the kind of grace that immigrants and other marginalized groups have been showing our nation for hundreds of years. Despite discrimination, they insist on believing that the founding promises are true, that we as a nation are better than our prejudices (and sometimes our laws) would indicate.
And that inspires me–and, hopefully, the next generation of women–to redouble my own efforts to make sure those founding promises hold true.
Is there a book that inspires you and the girls in your life to be better citizens?