Feeling Haiku Through Thin Wood Walls

First published in A Hundred Gourds 4:2, March 2015. First written in August of 2013. In response, the author wrote to me to say “That’s by far the most analytic, comprehensive, and thoughtful review of Thin Wood Walls I’ve seen. I really appreciate your approach to both the language and the story itself and how they interrelate.” At my invitation, David Patneaude was a guest speaker at the national quarterly Haiku Society of America meeting held at the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience in June 2013.

The main character in David Patneaude’s young-adult novel, Thin Wood Walls (Houghton Mifflin, 2004), is an eleven-year-old Japanese American boy named Joe Hanada who writes haiku. The novel begins in the Seattle area in the early stages of World War II. When Pearl Harbor is attacked in December of 1941, Joe’s father is arrested and separated from the family for much of the war. Joe, his older brother Mike, and his mother and grandmother are forced to leave their home and are sent to the Tule Lake relocation camp in Northern California. As prisoners in their own country, Joe and his family survive harsh conditions and many difficulties and injustices behind barbed wire, which Joe writes about in the journal his father gave him just before he was taken away. The book is a powerful story about how Joe learns patience while longing to be reunited with his father and to be released from the relocation camp, and about his relationship with his older brother, who he also longs to see again after Mike enlists in the army as a way to assert his American loyalty.
        Joe also writes haiku in his journal, often in ways that summarize what has recently happened to him, or soon will. Here’s one haiku that begins the first of the book’s three parts, foreshadowing the tension of war between Japan and America:

                December moonlight
                On fallow fields, clouds blooming,
                Lightning in their midst. (1)

After this poem, when Joe and his family visit the woods to tag a Christmas tree, the book first introduces haiku as follows:

I looked around at the greens and browns stretching off in every direction. I heard the call of birds. I smelled the wet, wintry smells of land that God had made. I closed my eyes and imagined. I liked to write haiku, a kind of Japanese poetry often linked to nature, and I wanted to remember this place. It was the kind of setting where haiku could take root. (5)

It’s right after the attack on Pearl Harbor when Joe’s dad gives Joe and his brother journals to record their wartime experiences. “‘Your mother and I have taught you to observe what happens around you,’” Joe’s dad says (20). Joe mentions having “regular haiku lessons with Mom” (20) and says, “I looked forward to the writing, to the challenge of squeezing life-size images and big ideas into just a few words” (20–21).
        Joe’s poems are all 5-7-5 syllables, and seventeen of them are scattered throughout the narrative. An additional five haiku by Joe’s brother Mike appear near the end, and serve as a plot device. After Mike joins the 442nd regimental combat team to escape the camp and to prove his loyalty to the United States, he seems to find solace in writing haiku while fighting on the Italian front. The 442nd became the most decorated infantry regiment in the history of the United States Army.
        In addition to the haiku that appear in the book, the narrative benefits from a sort of haiku sensitivity, where Joe notices his surroundings with a heightened sensory awareness. For example, he describes his older brother by saying “The muscles in his thick neck bulged out like bamboo stalks” (14). While haiku tend to avoid overt metaphor and simile, here the detail of bamboo stalks helps readers picture the muscles in Mike’s neck more vividly, using an image associated with Japan.
        All good novels demonstrate this kind of sensitivity to images as part of the goal to show rather than to tell. The following are more examples of haiku sensitivity from Thin Wood Walls. Many of these examples are similes, thus comparative rather than being something directly seen or present in the narrative, but their inclusion in the novel still demonstrates the effectiveness of the clearly observed image:

  • Thimbles on her fingers reflected light from the fire. (41)
  • The click of glass [playing marbles] sparked memories of dirt fields after a spring rain. I could smell them. (73)
  • I saw signs of spring: green buds on trees, the sun riding higher in the sky, the river’s swollen current. (74)
  • Up close, she smelled like flowers. (85)
  • I rolled down my [car] window for air and stared at the house [just before they were driven away from their home for the last time, to be relocated]. Its windows looked dull and empty, like the eyes of a trout. (87)
  • Mike was tough [he’d just enrolled in the army]. But did that matter to a bullet? (188)
  • I had been afraid his smile would come only rarely, like new needles on a fir. (196)
  • I spent a lot of time thinking about Mike, wondering where he was [fighting in Europe] . . . and my guessing always put him in the middle of some terrible battle where men on both sides fell like ripening cherries in a hailstorm. (200)
  • My feelings rose like a rain-swollen river. (220)
  • I got up, empty as a hobo’s pocket. (222)
  • I felt as if my heart were going to shatter like that long-ago marble. (222)
Early in the narrative, Joe describes missing his dad, feeling bittersweet at hearing the snippets of news the family received about him. He says, “knowing what something meant wasn’t the same as feeling it” (49), a comment that might easily apply to the haiku technique of showing rather than telling. David Patneaude uses haiku-like details to heighten reader sensitivity throughout the book.
        Here are some additional haiku from Thin Wood Walls:

                Outside the window,
                Strangers—once friends—scurry past.
                Moles in black tunnels. (44)

                Mom pulls the plug on
                Glenn Miller’s sweet moonlight song.
                Echoes haunt the room. (86)

                Desert sun beats down,
                Kindling thoughts of home—cool rain,
                Falling like teardrops. (93)

                Summer heat, summer
                Dreams, trapped between thin wood walls.
                Liberties wither. (122)

Novels that employ haiku as a literary element are few in number. In this case, the poems are “written” mostly by a preteen boy, and serve to demonstrate an appreciation for the Japanese culture into which he was born, even while his interest in baseball, basketball, and marbles shows him to be thoroughly American. Throughout This Wood Walls, haiku poems and a haiku sensitivity help readers feel the emotions in the characters by showing us what they lived as well as what they saw. In this way, haiku makes the novel more real, more intimate, and ultimately, more compelling.