Pure Land

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One of my favorite travel souvenirs is to purchase a book in a local independent bookstore. While on our Arizona road trip, I visited the adorable Bright Side Bookshop in Flagstaff, where an awesome bookseller recommended local author Annette McGivney’s Pure Land.

In Pure Land, McGivney expands on her 2007 article that she wrote for Backpacker, that explored the brutal murder of a Japanese woman, Tomomi Hanamure, who was stabbed while hiking in the Grand Canyon. Pure Land is part memoir, part social commentary, and part true crime.

As McGivney was researching the story, she began to experience triggers from her own abusive childhood and this article took on a greater meaning. McGivney flew to Japan and became close to Hanamure’s family, learning that the woman had been abandoned by her mother at a young age and was raised by a single father. Hanamure always felt a pull towards the United States, specifically the National Parks of the South West and Native American culture. Hanamure was killed by Randy Wescogame, an eighteen year old meth addict living on the Havasupai reservation, who also had a history of childhood abandonment and abuse.

“Pure Land” refers to the Buddhist belief of the ultimate afterlife, the place where a person who has learned everything from earth, through multiple reincarnations, will finally go to rest. Hanamure comes from a Buddhist background and her family prays that she has made it to Pure Land to find peace. However, it also takes on a different meaning with McGivney’s book, as we can imagine that Hanamure and others find their own Pure Land when they are at peace in nature. Perhaps even Wescogame is on his way to Pure Land, while healing in prison, or maybe McGivney is finding it, as she moves forward from her childhood trauma.

Pure Land is a powerhouse. I could not put it down. The story is heartbreaking, but McGivney explores it with compassion and care. I was fascinated with the way that Hanamure felt drawn to a foreign culture, so much so that she worked minimum wage jobs to just save enough to meet her travel expenses. Her entire focus was on her trips to the United States. Her passion for the United States was not shared with her family and friends, yet she was not deterred. By all accounts, she also came across as an unusual soul by those who encountered her during her travels, yet she seemed to own this aspect of her life. It’s crushing to think that someone could have so much love for a land and its people, yet it led to her violent and untimely death.

Pure Land also explores the devastating and complex history of Native Americans and their treatment by the United States government. Through centuries of systematic racism, many tribe members that maintain their autonomy of tribal lands are facing a crisis with poverty, violence, and addiction. McGivney looks at the history of how this has happened and specifically how this life has impacted the Havasupai. While she certainly doesn’t forgive Wescogame’s crime, she does explore his life within the context of living in a tribe that has experienced incredible hardships. I was most interested in reading about the founding of the National Parks. The National Parks are the treasures of the United States and I think most citizens ( and foreign visitors) hold them in the highest regard, but the dark side of the history of the parks includes the displacement of Native tribes, forcing them from their ancestral lands.

McGivney gets specific with regard to the Havasupai, who now have a deeply impoverished reservation on a small piece of land in the Grand Canyon. Crossing through their land is the only way to access one of the most stunning parts of the canyon, a place where Hanamure was headed when she was murdered. The Havasupai tribe has made efforts to attract tourists, including building a small, heavily fortified lodge and offering guides. However, the problems that exist on the reservation make this a very dangerous area and not everyone is welcoming or profiting off of the tourists.

Although we think of National Parks as a places that should be open to all, this particular section of the Canyon is controlled by the Havasupai. It is their land. They have little with regard to ways of making an income and whether they want to or not, allowing tourists brings in much needed revenue. Their willingness to allow tourists to pass through reeks of slum tourism, with the tourists not just passing through on their hike, but also gawking at the shocking poverty on the reservation. The Havasupai that are able to make a living off of the tourists are doing the best with what they have, however reading this made my stomach hurt. The only reason that they are in this situation is because they were forced to give up their lands and forced to accept a rotten deal, yet now they are again pressured into allowing tourists to traipse through their home. I imagine that if they did not allow the tourists to pass, that the government would find a way to intervene on the tourists behalf. It’s a terrible situation.

Pure land is an important read from a historical and societal perspective. McGivney’s writing is heart breaking and haunting. I can’t imagine that I will ever forget this book.

Ms. Ice Sandwich

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Thank you to Pushkin Press for providing me with a copy of Mieko Kawakami’s novella, Ms. Ice Sandwich, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT – A young boy going through puberty develops a crush on a quirky woman who sells ice sandwiches at a local grocery store.

LIKE/DISLIKEMs. Ice Sandwich is part of Pushkin Press’ series highlighting Japanese authors. I love reading writers from other countries, but I have to admit that I felt like a lot of this novella was lost in translation. Actually, I’m left unsure whether or not it was lost in translation or just not a complete story. Or perhaps, it was brilliant writing, because it kept me thinking about it long after I put it down.

The most intriguing aspect was the character, Ms. Ice Sandwich. She is a very unusual woman, who wears thick blue eye-shadow and is mocked by many people in the town. The protagonist, is fascinated by her and goes out of his way to visit her sandwich stall. I’m not sure that I quite understand what an ice sandwich is, but I think it was more of a Japanese treat, than a savory or meal item. She, being an adult, has no idea that this kid has a crush on her. Knowing that she is older and the town-weirdo, he keeps his obsession fairly hidden, only spilling partial truths to his friend, a girl he has nicknamed Tutti-Fruiti. I wasn’t sure how this crush was going to play out. I kept thinking with the way that the town treats Ms. Ice Sandwich, that she may have been transgendered, but this never came about in the story. It seems her treatment is solely because she dresses quirky and wears too much make-up. This wasn’t a strong character or story choice. I was let-down when my anticipation of a greater reveal, never came to fruition.

Kawakami captures a young boy’s first crush very well, with plenty of realism. He goes through so many emotions as he is trying to process this new feeling. He also has awkwardness with his peers and is dealing with caring for his sick grandmother.

The end of Ms. Ice Sandwich was a let-down, with a dull resolution with regard to both the crush and Ms. Ice Sandwich’s future. I was wanting a more dramatic or unexpected resolution, but the story just ended on a dull note. It fizzled.

RECOMMEND– Maybe. If you can read Ms. Ice Sandwich in Japanese, I think you might have a better experience. Overall, I enjoyed the story, but I don’t think it will be memorable when I look back over my favorite books that I read in 2018.