“How to Be an American Housewife,” by Margaret Dilloway, is a glimpse into the life of Shoko, a Japanese woman who marries an American soldier after World War II in an attempt to escape her bleak prospects: a life of manual labor and near-starvation patterned after the fate of her mother and the Japanese women before her.
The book begins at the end of Shoko’s life and flashes back to the past, beginning with her dream of being a housewife to an American GI. She knows it will be a challenge to raise children in America and still incorporate traditional Japanese customs, but Shoko is an intelligent woman who feels that if anyone can make good on this dream she can. So she finds an American soldier to marry and brings two children into the world in the United States.
The title of the book refers to a fictitious book that Shoko’s husband, Charlie, gives her to help her assimilate into American culture. There are snippets from this “book” at the beginning of each chapter. Dilloway explains in the author’s note that her own mother received a similar book that was a guide for Japanese brides marrying American men.
I found myself very interested in the customs of the Japanese while reading this book. I was interested in their religions and the way they eat. I thought it was interesting how they revere their male children more than their female children. They let their sons get away with everything and ask them to do nothing, while the girls are stuck with all of the work and are expected to be perfect.
Somehow, the boys who are raised this way still have some kind of a work ethic. The daughters grow up pleasing their parents and becoming submissive wives.
But Shoko does not experience this with her children. She tries raising her son and daughter in this traditional Japanese manner in America and finds that she ends up with a lazy, full-grown man who lives with his parents well into his forties. Her daughter becomes a bitter, disenchanted single mother who wants nothing to do with the Japanese way of life.
Before she dies, Shoko wants to reconcile with her brother, who disowned her years before when she married an American. With her failing health, it is impossible for Shoko to travel to Japan for a reunion, so she sends her daughter, Sue, in her place. This trip reveals family secrets that change the way Sue views her mother and the world around her.
Told from the points of view of Shoko and her daughter, “How to Be an American Housewife” offers an intimate glimpse into the lives of this Japanese-American family. It is engaging and entertaining, and I did not want to put it down.
In particular, the story made me want to know more about the women who came over from Japan seeking a better life in America. Were they happy with their choice to come here? Is America what they expected? Would they have chosen to go back to Japan if they could?
I am also curious to know how much Japan has changed since that post-World-War-II era. Are there women in Japan who still want to leave their country to come to America to seek “a better life?” I would definitely like to read more about this subject and seek out other books by this author.