Historical f iction touches upon local reality | Kitsap Week

'Dash' by Kirby Larson is a story that deals with the removal of Japanese-American citizens during World War II, and draws heavily from a local, true story.
— image credit: Contributed photo

When Mitsue “Mitsi” Shiraishi was told she was being sent to an internment camp during World War II, the woman began to organize for the move. Mitsi faced one challenge: being separated from one of her dearest friends, Chubby, her dog.

Mitsi got out a pen and paper and wrote a letter to General John DeWitt asking if she could take Chubby with her to the camp at Manzanar, Calif. Her request was denied.

“Can you imagine? You’re asked to leave everything,” said Northwest author Kirby Larson who recently discovered Mitsi’s story while doing research for a writing project.

“You ask for one small favor, to take your dog, and that is taken away too,” she said.

Mitsi was born in 1912 and grew up in the Seattle area. She graduated as Valedictorian from Bellevue High School in 1930. Her family had a farm, but its ownership was placed in Mitsi’s name. The law at the time denied her Japanese parents, who were not born in the United States, the right to own land.

Despite being raised in America to become a top student, and working in the Northwest soil on land she owned, Mitsi was among thousands of citizens of Japanese descent who were rounded up, packed into Army trucks and sent to camps in 1942.

Her dog, Chubby, went to live with Mitsi’s neighbor, Mrs. Bovee, who kept a diary of Chubby’s life on the farm.

“She wrote it from the dog’s point of view,” Larson said.

Mitsi was eventually given the diary. She returned to the Seattle area after the war, where she took care of her parents until their deaths. She then married. All the while, she kept Chubby’s diary, until she passed away in her 90s. The diary was found in the elderly Mitsi’s night stand.

Larson also grew up in the Seattle area, though during the decades that immediately followed World War II. Yet, she never learned much of the Japanese removal that occurred locally. Just across the shores from Seattle, in fact, more than 200 American citizens of Japanese decent on Bainbridge Island were the first in the nation to be removed from the their homes and sent to camps.

At the time, the local newspaper, The Bainbridge Island Review, became renowned for its vocal, public stance against the action. The newspaper kept contact with island neighbors that were sent away, and reported on their lives in the internment camps, and keeping a record of the government action.

Bainbridge Island recently established a memorial site at the location of the Eagle Harbor ferry dock where island citizens were shipped away.

Today, Larson is a writer whose works include young adult novels, often set among historical events. Her 2006 best-selling book “Hattie Big Sky,” about a young girl during World War I, received the literary Newbery Award.

Larson came across the story of Mitsi and Chubby while she was seeking out material for another book project that would become “Duke.” She didn’t use Mitsi’s story for “Duke,” but the tale lingered with her.

“It sort of haunted me,” Larson said.

It became the prime inspiration behind her latest release, “Dash,” a story of an 11-year-old girl, forced to leave her home and dog behind as she is sent to an internment camp during World War II.

“I was looking for true stories to tell, and when I learned of Mitsi as an adult (during the story), it didn’t fit my category,” Larson said, who generally writes stories about young adults.

“But the story has just stayed with me,” she said.

With the help of Mitsi’s family, she was able to piece together pieces of her story for “Dash” which will be released this month. The book for young readers is set against the backdrop of one of the darkest moments in America’s history; a moment that President Ronald Reagan would issue a formal apology for in 1988. The United States government admitted then that the removal of American citizens of Japanese decent was based on racial prejudice. The government issued $20,000 to survivors of the camps.

On Aug. 28, Larson will celebrate the release of “Dash,” and shed light on the topic of internment camps with two Bainbridge Island events. The author will appear at Eagle Harbor Book Co. at 7 p.m. to discuss and sign her new book.

But earlier in the day, at 3 p.m., the author will be joined by Mitsi’s family at the Bainbridge Island Japanese Exclusion Memorial to share stories and tour the site.

“At the memorial event there will be docents of the memorial as well as members from the historical society,” Larson said. “The plan is to stop and tell different stories along the way. Historical society members will share stories they know and I will tell stories that draw from ‘Dash.’”

“It’s a memory walk,” she added. “It’s remembering people who were sent from the island.”

A portion of the proceeds from “Dash” sold that day at Eagle Harbor Book Co. will go toward the construction a visitor’s center at the memorial.

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