One of the perks of associating with the International Pulpwood Queens and Timber Guys Book Club is that it has put me in touch with so many other writers and their amazing works. Suzanne Kamata’s The Baseball Widow is the Official 2022 Pick of the International Pulpwood Queens and Timber Guys Book Club for the month of July. Because her work is also set in Japan, I was particularly interested to read it.
Suzanne Kamata, an award winning-writer of fiction, poetry, and essays, lives in Tokushima, Japan. She was born and raised in Grand Haven, Michigan, relocated as a teenager to Lexington, South Carolina before making her way to Japan in 1988—ostensibly for one year teaching English on the JET Program. There she met and fell in love with the man who would become her husband and has since lived in Tokushima.
In addition to being an associate professor at Naruto University of Education and a writer, she has raised two children. Her daughter, who was born with cerebral palsy and is hearing impaired, is the subject or at least the inspiration of a number of Kamata’s works—introducing not only the challenges of dealing with disability in Japan but also the way different cultures accept and acknowledge the importance of independence, caretaking, and community.
The Baseball Widow, published in October 2021 with Wyatt-MacKenzie Publishing, is a poignant, at times provocative work. It’s the kind of work that lingers with you long after the last page has been turned. The power of the work comes from Kamata’s ability to deliver compelling and believable characters.
I admit when I first picked up the novel, I didn’t really know what to expect. I knew it dealt with the cultural dissonance between an American woman and her Japanese husband. And of course there would be baseball.
I like baseball. I like explorations of cultural differences. But, would I like a novel about these topics? The answer is absolutely “yes”. The answer is also that this novel is about so much more than these topics, and that’s what makes it so enthralling.
Christine Yamada is the titular “baseball widow.” Once an idealistic young woman intent on doing what she could to make the world a better place, Christine finds her way to Japan where she falls in love and marries Hideki Yamada. A high school baseball star, Hideki is a kind, sensitive man. When he lands his dream job as a high school baseball coach, he is determined to take his team to the tournaments at the Koshien Stadium. In his dedication to his goals, he strands Christine at home with two needy children—one with emotional needs, the other with physical ones—in a culture she does not fully appreciate. And so she becomes “a baseball widow.”
The narrative rotates through the perspectives of four characters: Christine and Hideki are the main players, but there’s also Daisuke, a high school baseball player with experience living in the US; and his mother, Nahoko, who, like Christine, has an absent husband. The multiple perspectives allows readers to dip into the emotions and motivations of each character.
We come to understand their needs, their dreams, and their disappointments. As the story progresses, the characters’ stories intertwine. Unintentionally, they hurt one another. Because of the delicate way Kamata presents the characters, readers are able to sympathize with each one.
There is no “bad guy” here, no one to blame. Hideki devotes too much time to his coaching, leaving poor Christine to fend for herself as she tries to navigate a different (and at times difficult) culture and more importantly protect her children. But we understand why Hideki does what he is does. We recognize the pressures that he also confronts.
We sympathize with Christine, we want to help her. At times we want to shake them both. Even so, Kamata deftly depicts the sweetness at the core of their relationship and the love that now seems to have become remote and unapproachable.
The Baseball Widow is divided into two parts. The first is set mainly in Japan, on the island of Shikoku—considered to be remote and slightly backward—and the latter in South Carolina (could we make parallels on the way both locales are conceived in popular imagination?).
One of the many challenges that Christine faces as a wife and mother in Japan is tending to her children with virtually no support from her husband.
Her son, Kōji, is shy and easily bullied by the children in his school, a fact that will eventually push Christine to travel with him to South Carolina. Her daughter, Emma, has cerebral palsy and is hearing impaired.
One of the brightest points in the novel, for me, was the way Kamata depicts Emma. With all the physical challenges she faces, she is a delightful little girl, eager for adventure, and fearless.
Emma offers a counterpoint to Christine’s obsessive worrying. Perpetually conscious of what others are thinking about her and always afraid of doing something wrong (as a foreigner in Japan), Christine “handicaps” herself and bequeaths her own fretfulness to Kōji, who seems constantly on the verge of a meltdown.
I noticed the Kirkus Review felt the novel was “uneven,” finding high school ball player Daisuke’s storyline less interesting or necessary. I disagree.
What I find so riveting about Kamata’s novel is the way she explores the intersections of different cultures and the difficulties we have communicating across cultural lines. Obviously there are dissonances and disagreements between Americans and Japanese. But, Kamata’s novel also explores the tensions that exist within cultures. Daisuke—himself an outsider to “his own” Japanese culture following his extended time in the United States—falls in love with a Japanese girl who is Burakumin, or a member of a traditionally marginalized and outcaste segment of society. Their fated romance neatly parallels that of Christine and Hideki.
I began this review by describing this novel as one that explores culture clashes and baseball. It’s really much more than that. The Baseball Widow is an engrossing and affecting exploration of the capacity of the human heart to hunger, to hurt, and to hope. Suzanne Kamata is a gifted writer. Her prose is crisp and often elegant. I highly recommend The Baseball Widow.
For more on Suzanne Kamata, here’s a wonderful interview.
And here’s the link to her website where you will find information about her other works: novels, essays, and poems.