The Sun Gods by Jay Rubin
Review by Oralee Kramer
Jay Rubin has been best known as the translator of the works of Japanese author Haruki Murakami. Rubin has a Ph.D. in Japanese literature from the University of Chicago. He taught Japanese Literature at the University of Washington for eighteen years and then moved on to teach at Harvard University. Retiring from teaching in 2008, he returned to the Seattle area to live. He has spent much of his time translating Murakami’s works. The Sun Gods is his first novel.
In interviews Rubin shares that he finds translating fun and really enjoys it. He delights in the challenge of translating from the Japanese into English as he finds that translating is not a direct mechanical path but rather an interpretation of ideas into another language. It is this process that he loves. It should be no surprise then that when writing his first novel, Rubin’s greatest strength is writing in the voices of his characters.
The reader sees this first in the pain and confusion of recently widowed Reverend Tom Morton as he struggles to rationalize his strong attraction to the beautiful Mitsuko who has recently arrived from Japan. Nowhere is this clearer than in the anger Mitsuko expresses toward Christianity and then toward the Americans after the bombing of Nagasaki. Rubin captures the emotions and expresses them clearly.
Set in Seattle in the early 1940’s, the novel is well researched and true to the historical facts of dates and individuals involved. It is a strong piece of historical fiction. The bombing of Pearl Harbor results in the subsequent removal of Japanese citizens from their stable communities in the Puget Sound area. Their first stop was often the smelly, muddy horsebarns at the Puyallup Fair Grounds. Ultimately, the signing of Executive Order 9066 by Roosevelt sent frightened, confused citizens of Japanese ancestry to internment camps such as Minidoka in the dust ravaged reaches of Idaho. Contrasting all of this history is the love story of a lonely little blond boy who has lost his mother and finds in a gracious lovely Japanese woman someone who will love him unconditionally. It is this love that is the music of the sun gods.
Rubin captures the emotions and racial antagonism of post Pearl Harbor Seattle clearly. The fear of what will happen next and the hatred it promotes is not unfamiliar to present times in the United States. The horror of the bombing of Nagasaki and the long term effects of that decision politically, physically and emotionally on the people involved speaks in a clear voice from the page. But it is the love of little Billy for Mitsuko that sends him to Japan as a young man searching for the woman who loved him, nurtured him and ultimately had to leave him. His search takes him to a small village high up in the hills in southern Japan, to the suburbs of Tokyo and finally to a hospital in Nagasaki. What he finds is his gift from the sun gods.
This novel would be an excellent high school historical novel for use in the study of Washington State History, or the history of World War II for either US History or World History.