Yuki and the One Thousand Carriers

Previously unpublished. First written in August of 2008.

Yuki and the One Thousand Carriers by Gloria Whelan, illustrated by Yan Nascimbene. New York: Sleeping Bear Press, 2008. $17.95, hardback, 32 pages, 9.25 by 11.25 inches. ISBN978-1-58536-352-0.

One of the categories on my shelves of haiku books is books for children. There seems to be a strong market for haiku among children’s books that rises above the usual mainstream misperception of haiku. Indeed, a promising number of books for children have treated haiku as serious literature. In that context, I was interested to read one of the latest picture books for children that includes haiku, Gloria Whelan’s Yuki and the One Thousand Carriers.

The book tries to be literary in its use of haiku, or so it seems, yet it doesn’t quite measure up. Whelan’s book is gorgeously illustrated by Yan Nascimbene in telling the story of Yuki, the daughter of a provincial governor who has to travel from Kyoto to Edo (now Tokyo) along the 300-mile Tokaido Road. Because Yuki’s father is such an important political figure, he and his family travel with 1,000 attendants or “carriers” who protect them, carry them on palanquins, and bring along their possessions. Yuki misses her home but uses haiku to record her impressions of the trip, and thus ease her homesickness.

The story, in both words and pictures, gives a sense of what the life of royalty and privilege must have been like in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries for travelers of the famous Japanese road. The illustrations at times echo famous Hiroshige or other Japanese prints, as with an expansive image of fishing boats on a bay, or Nihonbashi Bridge, from which, we are told, all distances in Japan are measured. Whelan acknowledges that her inspiration for the story was viewing Hiroshige’s “Fifty-three Stations of the Tokaido Road,” and the images were undoubtedly an influence on the book’s artist, too. Along the way, we see inns and rivers, snow-capped Mt. Fuji, castles, valleys, and a seascape. The moody and evocative watercolor paintings loosely alternate between vast expanses of landscape and closer images of Yuki or the view from her palanquin. Sometimes the landscapes lack the intimacy that many children’s books employ to hold a child’s interest, but they are breathtakingly beautiful. The vastness of the landscapes, however, serves to heighten Yuki’s alienation and longing for home.

Yuki appears in many of the images, always dressed in a different kimono, and with her she brings her puppy, Kita, who lends several of the pictures energy and warmth. For its story and illustrations, Yuki and the One Thousand Carriers comes well recommended.

But what of the haiku? The book offers nineteen poems, interspersed among prose paragraphs that unfold the story in a manner much like haibun. Here’s the book’s first poem:

Once outside the gate

how will I find my way back?

Will home disappear?

The poem speaks to the girl’s homesickness, and thus presents her feelings as the journey begins. But it has little to do with haiku. It lacks a seasonal reference. The poem’s two-part structure (missing in most of the book’s other poems) seems accidental. The reference to the gate gives the slightest of visual images, but the poem is essentially cerebral rather than intuitive and experiential. It’s an example of a haiku written with a purpose or agenda—in this case to further the plot of the book, or at least to add an overt emotional viewpoint to the story. But the agenda makes this poem, and especially other poems that follow, subservient to the agenda rather than the needs and traditions of haiku as a literary art.

Rain coaxes flowers

pear blossoms will soon bloom here

I will not see them.

This poems does a little better, with stronger images and emotions, a seasonal reference, and a bit of a turn in the last line. But the poem seems padded to fit the unnecessary 5-7-5 pattern, or why else are flowers and pear blossoms mentioned? The first line offers an interpretation of the rain, together with an intellectualization of the imagined blossoms-to-come rather than showing the first bulges of buds on a pear tree that would be more immediate and experiential.

With a full stomach

even the wooden pillow

holds my head softly.

I suspect the author didn’t mean to suggest that the wooden pillow has a full stomach (imagine that), but that’s what the poem says. Blame it on an attempt to compress. The skilled haiku poet will know how to compress without such grammatical danglers. The story’s point of view is clearly Yuki’s, and that it’s her who has the full stomach, but the poem is presented as a sentence, so grammatically it’s the wooden pillow that is magically given a stomach. By relying on the technique of using a kireji (cutting word), the poem easily could have been improved. Removing “With” (or saying “my stomach full”) and ending the first line with a dash would have made this a more effective haiku in the literary tradition, even though the poem still lacks a seasonal reference.

Other haiku uses overt similes (willows leaning over the river “like women / washing their long hair” or that a mountain path is somehow a “strong hand”), judgments and personifications (saying that a river is “busy” and “doesn’t look back”), and failing to stay in the present moment (describing her bed at home lying empty because she’s not there). One poem (“At the mountain top / I see my father on his horse / far away from me.”) is simply a sentence.

Throughout the book, the poems dwell on Yuki’s longing for home. We do see her longing soften, but the poems still fail to succeed as literary haiku. For my part, I long for children’s books that show a greater awareness than this book of literary expectations for haiku. Nevertheless, the story is intriguing, the illustrations beautiful, and the taste of historic Japan very inviting to those with such inclinations.

Pseudo-haiku abound in some children’s books, and Yuki and the One Thousand Carriers, despite its many other strengths, is among them. Here, though, is one poem that rises above:

Grass under my feet

plum blossoms drift down on me

just for a minute.

If all the poems had been like this, I could also have considered recommending the book for its haiku.