Publication Year: 2006
Barbara Jefferson, a young American teaching in Tokyo in the 1960s, is set on a life-changing quest when her Japanese surrogate mother, Michi, dies, leaving her a tansu of homemade plum wines wrapped in rice paper. Within the papers Barbara discovers writings in Japanese calligraphy that comprise a startling personal narrative. With the help of her translator, Seiji Okada, Barbara begins to unravel the mysteries of Michi's life, a story that begins in the early twentieth century and continues through World War II and its aftermath.
As Barbara and Seiji translate the plum wine papers they form an intimate bond, with Michi a ghostly third in what becomes an increasingly uneasy triangle. Barbara is deeply affected by the revelation that Michi and Seiji are hibakusha, survivors of the atomic bombing in Hiroshima, and even harder for her to understand are the devastating psychological effects wrought by war. Plum Wine examines human relationships, cultural differences, and the irreparable consequences of war in a story that is both original and timeless.
Published by: University of Wisconsin Press
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The chest arrived on a grey afternoon in late January, three weeks after Michi-san’s death. Barbara sat huddled at the electric table in her six-mat room, eating peanut butter washed down with green tea and reading student quizzes on original sin. It had just begun to snow, white petals floating haphazardly up and down, as if the direction of the sky...
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Snow continued falling during the night, sifting down onto curved tile roofs and the groves of cryptomeria. By the time Barbara walked from Sango-kan to the classroom buildings, woods. The dark branches of trees against the snow reminded her of ink brushstrokes on soft white paper. Her mind lingered on Michi’s calligraphy, the papers curled from...
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The day she learned of Michi-san’s death, Barbara had been in downtown Tokyo, searching for a birthday present for her mother. She was back at Sango-kan, eating dinner, when then held out another brown paper package. “Nakamoto sensei, no answer.” He gestured with his head toward Michi-san’s apartment. ...
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The tansu was just as Barbara had left it that morning before class, one drawer open, several papers and bottles on the floor. Relieved, she wrapped the papers around the bottles and returned the wine to the drawers. She noticed that the dates on the outside of each paper—the only symbols in English—all looked recent. ...
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The campus festival was held in early February instead of the traditional time, in mid-fall; Miss Fujizawa had been away in October, chairing a national conference on women’s rights. In spite of the following week’s exams, the students had transformed the campus. Banners and kites hung from the buildings and there were stalls in the courtyards where...
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It rained that week, washing away all traces of snow. On Saturday morning, when Barbara walked to Seiji’s house, the Tama-gawa Canal was swollen almost to its banks. The trees beside the canal were about to bud; in the distance their slender branches woods were empty, with no sign of life, not even a squirrel darting from tree to tree; ...
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Barbara took a taxi to Seiji’s house the next afternoon. After a day of nervous anticipation, last minute indecision over everything—which of Michi’s papers to bring, how to carry them, what to wear—had made her late. ...
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Seiji was an impatient driver, honking, weaving through traffic. But he seemed competent, his hands sure on the wheel of his truck. He obviously knew the way to the college.
"When was Michi-san your teacher?" Barbara ask. ...
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That night Barbara awoke suddenly, her heart pounding. A fox had been speaking to her in a language she’d understood in her dream, but the content was gone. All that remained was a sense of danger. ...
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Early the next morning there was a tap at the door.
“Rie!” Barbara stared. Rie’s protest bandage was gone; her hair was freshly washed.
"May I speak to you, Sensei?"
"Of course. Would you like some tea? Or Coca Cola?" ...
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Monday morning, Barbara went into Kokubunji to buy food for Seiji’s visit that afternoon: bean cakes and fine green tea, and for dinner—in case he should stay that long—salmon and snow peas. In the pharmacy, she tried to buy deodorant, using her pocket sized Japanese-English dictionary. ...
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The Hakone Hotel, a large stucco building perched on a steep hillside, faced Lake Ashi. In her article about Hakone, Barbara’s mother had written about the famous inverted view of Mt. Fuji reflected in the lake, but today Fuji was hidden behind clouds. Surrounding the water were large hills, their peaks sheared off by the mist. ...
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In the morning it was raining, a cold steady drizzle. Barbara woke at first light, but waited until nine before walking up the hill to Seiji’s inn. Surely he wouldn’t look in the bag before she came. ...
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Mr. Kawabata decided Barbara should see “the bird’s picture” of Mt. Fuji, from the site of a volcano. He drove, talking and gesticulating as they went flying up the hill. Seiji and Barbara, in the rear seat, were thrown against each other on the curves. Barbara tried not to look at the sheer drop at the edge of the road. ...
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When Barbara awoke the room was filled with light. She turned toward Seiji: he wasn’t there. His futon was still beside hers but his clothes and suitcase were gone. Surely he wouldn’t just leave. She got up and dressed quickly.A pot of tea was on the kotatsu, one cup beside it, no note anywhere. ...
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When Barbara returned to Sango-kan, she was glad to find Mrs. Ueda there, with dinner prepared for her.She’d imagined a dark, deserted building. It was unsettling, however, that Mrs. Ueda had known exactly when she was returning—apparently Miss Fujizawa’s secretary had called the hotel to inquire about her schedule. ...
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Barbara spent the next morning trying to reach Seiji, using the phone in the classroom building so Mrs. Ueda couldn’t hear. There was no answer at his house until noon. She was sorry, his aunt said in a cool voice, a telephone number for him at Mashiko was not available. ...
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The next morning Barbara found a telegram under her door: “Please come Mashiko. Ride Tohoku line from Ueno #13, then Mito line to Mashiko. There is Ryokan Shirakawa. Innkeeper will call to me. Come I am urgent. Miss Dear Jefferson. ...
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Michi is almost twelve years of age, but remains willful girl. She has blood of wild fox in her veins, from her grandmother Ko.
This New Year I have told Michi-chan the story of my long-ago surprise meeting with Ko. ...
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Michi’s garden, behind Sango-kan, had been untended all spring. Barbara noticed the tangle of plants and weeds one morning when she was taking out her trash. Along one edge of the garden, beside the stones, were hyacinths, pendulous stalks of blossom, blue and some white, dense with fragrance. ...
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Barbara sat in the Western-style room drinking plum wine. Light from the full moon illuminated the back of the house and glinted in the windows of Michi-san’s apartment. A blade of moonlight lay across the floor. Tomorrow she’d call Mr. Wada, have the papers translated right away. ...
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Dear child, what is it? Please come in.”
“Michi-san,” Barbara said. “The reason I knew she was a survivor of Hiroshima was from some writing she left to me."
“I just had part of it translated—what happened—on that day. ...
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Rie was absent from conversation class on Monday. When Barbara asked where she was—Rie had never missed a class before—there was some giggling but no one answered.
At lunch Junko told Barbara that Rie had an accident on Saturday, “a tumble into the Tamagawa Canal.” ...
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The rainy season began in early June, days of gentle soaking rains. Barbara woke to the sound of it on the tile roof and to the odors of wet earth and leaves that blew in through the open window of the three-mat room. Remembering that Michi’s mother had called these the plum rains, she went several times to the plum grove where the golden fruits...
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Toward the end of June, Seiji came to see Barbara at Sango-kan. Miss Yamaguchi rushed up to tell her. “You have a gentleman calling,” she said, then skittered back down the stairs again.
He was in the vestibule, looking out at the misting rain. ...
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The following week it was scorchingly hot in Tokyo, and stifling in the Asakusa apartment. Barbara and Seiji went out to buy an electric fan, but it was little help, merely shifting the turgid air about and languidly riffling the edges of paper on the table. ...
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The Wadas were eating dinner when Barbara arrived. Mrs. Wada insisted that she join them, “just soba noodles, good for the health in our hot weather.”
“Thank you, but only a little—I’m not very hungry.” Mrs. Wada went to the kitchen and Barbara put the sheaf of Michi’s papers on the tatami beside her. ...
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Barbara had seen a large roll of brown wrapping paper in Mr. Kojima’s shop. She went downstairs, and through a combination of pantomime and elementary Japanese, asked for thirty sheets of the paper. Mr. Kojima complied quickly, muttering numbers under his breath as he tore off the sheets. ...
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Barbara could not sleep that night, even after several glasses of wine. In the morning she looked into the refrigerator: empty except for a bean cake wrapped in a paper napkin, and one cracked egg. Some of the yolk had dribbled out and crusted on the wire shelf. She didn’t have the strength to clean it up. ...
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The next morning Rie painted several signs for the Peace March—“No More Hiroshimas” in English and Japanese—and Mr. Yokohagi nailed the placards to flat sticks.
“Will you go with me, Sensei?” Rie said, “or wait for Okada-san?” ...
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Early the next morning Seiji picked Barbara up from the Yoko-hagis and took her to the station where she was to catch a train to Yonago. Though they said little during the drive, there was an almost palpable closeness between them. ...
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When Barbara returned to Tokyo there was a postcard from Seiji saying he was in Mashiko. He did not know when he would return, he said, there was much work to be done for Hamada. There was no mention of their time together, no hint of affection. It was his pattern, she reminded herself. After a week she called his house. ...
Publication Year: 2006