The Letters by Kazumi Yumoto

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Yumoto, Kazumi.  Translated by Cathy Hirano.  1997.  THE LETTERS.  New York:  Dell Laurel-Leaf.  ISBN:      0-440-23822-6.

The Letters by Kazumi Yumoto is a story of a six-year-old girl named Chiaki.  After her father is killed in a car accident, Chiaki and her mother move into an apartment at Poplar House.  When Chiaki is ill and the landlady, Mrs. Yanagi, takes care of her while her mother is at work, the old lady tells her a secret.  Mrs. Yanagi is collecting letters to deliver to dead people when she dies.  Chiaki begins to write letters to her father and Mrs. Yanagi adds them to the collection of letters to the dead already in her bureau drawer – when the drawer is full, Mrs. Yanagi believes she will die.  Although at first she is frightened and does not like the old woman, Chiaki comes to love the old woman and is sad to leave Poplar House when her mother remarries.  By the time Mrs. Yanagi finally dies, Chiaki has grown up and is a nurse who has recently quit her job because she has "lost confidence" in herself as a nurse.  Chiaki returns for the funeral and is surprised by the large number of people at the wake.  She discovers that each of them have given Mrs. Yanagi letters to deliver, and that Mrs. Yanagi has told each of them a different story to get them to open up to her and allow her to deliver their letters.  At her mother's request, Chiaki is given a letter that her mother wrote to her father and gave to Mrs. Yanagi.  The letter reveals to Chiaki that her father did not die in an accident, but committed suicide and that her mother protected her from that truth.

In The Letters, Yumoto tells a story of a young girl grieving for her father and how Mrs. Yanagi and the other residents of Popular House, Mr. Nisioka and Miss Sasaki, become an extended family helping Chiaki and her mother and each other.  Through all the stories of daily life at Poplar House, the letters and Mrs. Yanagi's mission lurk in the background.  Writing the letters to her father, which at first are like diary entries and later become more conversational in tone, proves to be instrumental in Chiaki's grieving process, although at one point she begins to feel guilt that maybe her prolific writing will hasten Mrs. Yanagi's death.  The grown-up Chiaki who returns for the landlady's funeral has recently broken off her love affair with "a silent man whose thoughts I found unfathomable," but who reminded her of her father.  The book ends without resolving where Chiaki will go and what she will do after Mrs. Yanagi’s funeral.   

Japanese culture is prevalent in The Letters.  Following Buddhist tradition, Chiaki and her mother have an altar to leave offerings to her father, and Mrs. Yanagi leaves offerings for her late husband. There is discussion of the Japanese tradition of sleeping on the floor on futons and the landlady putting her legs under a kotatsu, "a low heated table with a quilt on top."  Chiaki hears her next-door neighbor, Mr. Nisioka listening to tapes of rakugo, "a traditional Japanese form of comic storytelling."  There are many references to Japanese food, from senjicha, the medicinal tea that Mrs. Yanagi drinks and insists Chiaki drink while she is ill, the landlady's standard lunch of cold rice, kelp stewed in soy sauce and miso soup with turnip and her favorite treat mamedaifuleu, "a confection made with pounded sticky rice, studded with black beans, and stuffed with bean jam," the rice balls Chiaki's mother makes for her lunch, and the sweet potatoes that Chiaki and the landlady bake on a bonfire, wrapped in wet newspaper and foil, which they share with passersby.  There is also mention of the kimono that the landlady wears when she goes out and the mourners at her wake wearing "freshly starched white aprons or elegant black mourning aprons with lace trim."  Additionally, rather than having a graveside funeral, the landlady’s mourners accompany her body to the crematorium.  Although the cultural markers are definitely Japanese, the story of a child grieving for her father and desiring to communicate with him beyond the grave is a universal one.  Also universal is the story of a child who at first fears or dislikes an adult, especially an elderly one who seems gruff at first, but after getting to know that adult grows to love him/her, seeing beyond age or appearance.  Also universal is Chiaki’s mother’s attempt to protect her child from the truth about her beloved father and waiting to reveal the truth until she is able to understand it.

While attending Tokyo University of Music, Kazumi Yumoto wrote scripts for operas.  Her first novel was The Friends, which won the 1997 Mildred A. Batchelder Award for Translation and the Recommended Book Prize from the Japan School Library Book Club and was named an ALA Notable Children’s Book.

Works cited:
Random House Website.  Accessed April 8, 2006.

 By Monica Wood