Jenny Kimura – Betty Cavanna, Morrow Junior Books, 1964
The culture of Japan has been in the news, due to interest in the unusual choice by the current emperor, Akihito, to abdicate in favor of his son, Naruhito. Akihito is the son of Hirohito, the emperor who, at least nominally, led Japan during its descent into fascism in the 1930s through its defeat by the Allies in World War II. Viewed by many as a war criminal, the U.S. occupying forces, led by General Douglas MacArthur, made the pragmatic decision that allowing Hirohito to remain as a figurehead would facilitate the transition to democracy in his devastated country.
This history provides a setting for a fascinating teen novel from the 1960s, an era in which the U.S. perception of Japan was still undergoing a transition from ruthless aggressor to economic partner in the new alliances of the Cold War. Although Betty Cavanna was best known for her incredibly popular “malt shop” teen romances, she also tackled some difficult subjects. In Jenny Kimura, a teenager raised in Japan by her Japanese mother and American father travels to the United States to meet and spend time with her paternal grandmother. Both sets of grandparents are essentially estranged from Jenny and her parents, unable to comprehend the choice their children made in marrying outside of their respective cultures. Although the novel includes the typical reflexive racism of its time, Cavanna also succeeds in creating a cast of characters who are struggling with some of these prejudices, and of a girl who is determined to develop her own identity and her own path in life.
When Jenny first lands in Hawaii, she is struck by the glaring contrast between the young native Hawaiian women, whom she perceives as “peacocks moving with stately grace among the ill-dressed visitors in a zoo,” and the Americans, who
“…repelled her…The men were so red-faced and brash, the women so inappropriately bedecked, with mink stoles over their arms and bulging straw carryalls crammed with treasures, that they looked like cartoon characters.”
This scene of aesthetic dissonance is only the beginning of Jenny’s confusion, as everything that she has learned from her mother about respect, decorum, and gender roles is challenged by life in the U.S., first in Kansas City, and later on vacation on Cape Cod.
Lest you think that Jenny is stereotypically submissive and quiet, she is not. She constantly questions the balance between the greater freedom accorded to American women against the apparent superficiality and distance from tradition of their daily lives. Jenny astutely observes her own grandmother, an affluent widow who lost one son in the Pacific and has been unable to forgive the other son who disappointed her. She is not employed, but is active in community activities that demand a level of authority unfamiliar to Jenny. She dresses in bright colors and short sleeves and she speaks her mind, sometimes appearing brash or insensitive: “She acted as if it were the most natural thing in the world that a sixty-two-year-old woman should be dressed like a girl and working like a man.” Yet Jenny empathizes with her and struggles to connect with this contradictory but loving figure.
One of the more jarring elements in the book is the circumscribed role of African-Americans as servants. Jenny’s grandmother employs a young woman, Leona, who has a completely subservient role in the household. Without questioning the oppression of minorities in the U.S., Jenny forms a bond with Leona, discussing boys and other problems with a familiarity whose contradictions she does not truly understand. Jenny is aware of skin color, at least her own, noticing that in Japan she would be considered fair-skinned, but in the U.S. she is problematically dark, at least when Alan, a boy who is a member of her grandmother’s social circle, becomes attracted to her. As in most malt-shop novels, Jenny needs to determine how far she is willing to go to meet the behavioral standards of a clueless male, as opposed to living according to her own moral and emotional compass. During her Cape Cod vacation, Jenny meets George, a young Japanese-American man, who is also attracted to her. She ponders the connections with they share, as well as the vast dissimilarities. She also learns about the internment of Japanese-Americans through the experience of her parents at the Tule Lake detention center.
There are no easy resolutions in Jenny Kimura, a book that blends the conventions of the teen girl novel with serious consideration of difficult questions: race, gender, ethnicity, family conflicts, and their challenges to one intelligent young woman seeking to find her identity. Betty Cavanna’s novel continues to provoke readers today.