Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston’s Legend of Fire Horse Woman
Farewell to Manzanar, Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston’s collaboration with her husband, James D. Houston, is commonly the first introduction that many American children, adolescents, and adults have to Japanese American history and details about their incarceration during World War II. The Houstons’ influence as teachers of history has been far-reaching, and now Wakatsuki Houston is extending her reach as a writer with the recent publication of her first fictional work, The Legend of Fire Horse Woman.
When asked about her approach to fictional writing, Wakatsuki Houston commented, “The process is different in that in writing a ‘memoir,’ one recalls the true events as accurately as possible and corroborates through research what one remembers. One needs to be as close to the truth as one can be, so the writing is more ‘left-brained,’ so to speak. In writing fiction, one can make up everything—lie, exaggerate, fantasize, imagine. I find fiction writing, without the boundaries of factual truth, a challenging process for the imagination and creative impulse.”
In The Legend of Fire Horse Woman, Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston again draws from her experiences at Manzanar, but this time the historical circumstances do not take center-stage. Instead, the trying conditions serve as tests of the strength of the three central characters—Sayo, her daughter Hana, and granddaughter Terri. These three generations of women embody the spirit of Fire Horse Women, women born under a rare sign, women who, according to legend, cannot be tamed by men, and because of their fierce sense of independence, are viewed as outcasts, unfit for marriage. Although she appears doomed by the sign under which she is born, Sayo eventually marries by becoming a picture bride, and the details of her early life and her immigration to America parallel scenes of her family’s current life behind the barbed wire fences of Manzanar. In both narratives, from past to present, from an emotional to a physical kind of imprisonment, the spirit of each woman prevails over all obstacles she encounters.
The legend of fire horse women originated with the Paiute Indians who once lived on the land near Manzanar and were later driven off. It is the spirit of these warriors that manifests itself in the central characters of the novel. In preparation for writing this novel, Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston researched and read about the history of the Paiutes, the internment, and Japanese culture. She also went to Japan in 1991 on a Japan-American Artists Exchange to research and interview “Meiji-no-Onna,” older women from the countryside and fishing hamlets, whose sensibilities were similar to those of the Japanese immigrant women of the turn of the century.
Although the novel is not a historical account of the internment of Japanese Americans, Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston hopes that The Legend of Fire Horse Woman “will ‘educate’ readers, to some degree, about what happened to Japanese Americans during World War II. But the novel is certainly not a history lesson...although I find it interesting how readers, with whom I’ve talked, want to discuss the internment. And I see this as a positive thing, because the more we know about that landmark event in our communal history, the least likely it can happen again to another immigrant group.”
Readers will undoubtedly find themselves caught up in the conflicts of Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston’s characters, but they will also find themselves spellbound by the artistic beauty of the author’s descriptive writing. In the final pages of the book, the scene of the two riders astride on the black horse is nothing short of poetry, which eloquently reminds readers that The Legend of Fire Horse Woman is indeed something more than a lesson in history.