Sunday, October 02, 2005

Tightening The Wire

The suspense in Graham Salisbury's new novel, Eyes of the Emperor, is strung as tightly as a high-tension wire.

It's an amazing, white-knuckle drama, with scene after scene revealing deeper, more complex problems for Eddy Okubo, a 16 year old Japanese-American who enlists in the U.S. Army to prove his loyalty as an American in the days leading up to Pearl Harbor, when anyone with "the eyes of the Emperor" is looked upon with suspicion.

Salisbury continues to explore themes that are at the heart of his earlier works (Under the Blood Red Sun, Shark Bait, Lord of the Deep). But in Eyes of the Emperor he develops these themes further, probing into the awkward relationship between fathers and sons; the difficulty of fitting into a crowd while still preserving one's dignity; and the struggle to earn one's self-respect.

His newest story is a testament to the courage and perseverance of the Japanese-American soldiers who served in a top-secret mission after Pearl Harbor. It was a mission that tested not only their resourcefulness and character but, ultimately, their allegiance to the oath that each soldier took when signing up to fight for America against their parents' homeland.

What makes the story so memorable is partly Salisbury's exquisite use of language, with sentences like this that feel like poetry: "Out to sea, the ocean breathed slow and soft, a body sleeping under silk."

But it's also the dramatic events that Salisbury portrays with typically powerful descriptions, such as this passage as Eddy and his pals race back to base as the Japanese bomb the harbor:

"Just then, sweeping in from the mountains, a single fighter came down on us with snaps of flame flickering in its gunports. Dusty puffs of red dirt and weeds jumped out of the ground in twin trails racing straight toward us. The SP hit the dirt by the left front tire. Jack gaped at the machine-gun tracks. Cobra and Chik piled over me, all of us diving to the floor and covering our heads with our arms as bullets ripped across the hood--thwack-thwack-thwack!"

And Salisbury has an uncanny ability to imagine himself in the shoes of a 16 year-old Japanese-American boy fighting against prejudice, as in this scene when the derogatory words come from the mouth of Eddy's commanding officer:

[Sweet] gazed up at the mainland guys and sucked his teeth, like some old Kaka'ako guy watching a card game.
"If the Japs land on this beach and you hesitate to shoot them, or if you even turn around and think about leaving your post, those men back there have orders to shoot you. You understand that? If the Nips come ashore and you take one step out of this hole, you're dead men, because I don't trust you. Am I making myself clear?"
Chik's jaw dropped. Slim wouldn't even look up. Blood boiled into my brain. We were soldiers in the United States Army! Americans! To say what he said was insane.
My fist opened and closed.
Wait, wait, wait, I told myself. Calm down. Do something stupid, you get court-martialed.

This deepening mistrust, and the struggle of the Japanese-American soldiers to earn the respect of their fellow soldiers, is the primary source of the story's unrelenting tension, with Eddy's heart at the core.

It's this tension, which rises incrementally from chapter to chapter (each chapter a gem of a story in itself), that drives the main narrative forward in an ever-tightening arc toward the conflict's climax.

How does Salisbury do this?

First off, Salisbury places Eddy between a "rock and a hard place."

When Eddy decides to enlist, even though he's underage, he does so against his father's wishes. By going against his father, he knows that he may have jeopardized his father's love and respect. But he doesn't see any other way to prove to Americans harboring anti-Japanese feelings that he and his friends are as loyal Americans as anyone else.

Then, Salisbury places Eddy in a situation where his loyalty as an American is questioned by the Army, the very organization that Eddy has joined as a way to defend his country and prove his point.

What does the Army do? It ships him and his pals across the country to undertake a mission that is based on the flawed and perverse premise that Japanese men have a different scent than white men. Eddy and his fellow Japanese-Americans are ordered to serve as "dog bait" to help train dogs to seek out and kill the enemy.

Each chapter raises the stakes for Eddy, threatening his self-esteem and feelings of self-worth until, ultimately, his life itself is endangered. With each successive turn of the screw, Salisbury tightens the wire until it nears its breaking point, placing Eddy in greater and greater physical --and emotional--danger.

The question that Salisbury plants in his reader's mind from the beginning is this: will Eddy survive these ordeals... and will he emerge with his dignity intact?

To surmount each obstacle, Eddy must discover his own inner resources--his faith in himself and in his ability; his loyalty to a cause greater than the poorly conceived mission; his oath of allegiance to the army; and, even more importantly, his desire to make his father proud and not shame his family.

It's only once he finds that place deep inside himself--the place where he can trust himself--that he can find the strength to persevere under the most trying conditions and earn the respect of his fellow soldiers, both white and Japanese-American.

In the end, Eddy can't eliminate his own fear of war or death. But he can work to prove that beneath the surface of a man's skin, regardless of color or physical appearance, each soldier is the same: an American, willing to risk his life for his country.

If you're wondering how to create tension and suspense in your story, take a look at Eddy's struggle across this tightly strung wire.

Few writers turn the screws better than Salisbury.

(For more information on Graham Salisbury and his work, check out his website at An interesting interview with him that appeared a few years ago is at

[Full disclosure: I must admit that I'm a biased fan of Graham Salisbury. I studied with him at Vermont College, where he was a member of the founding faculty of the MFA program in writing for children, and count myself lucky to have been one of his students. Not only is he an amazing writer, he's a remarkable teacher, as well.]

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