The cruel treatment of Japanese Canadians during the Second World War is addressed in fictional form by Canadian author Terrie Todd in her page-turning novel, Rose Among Thornes.

Turning His Back

Japanese Canadian teenager Rose Onishi is an aspiring concert pianist. But in the aftermath of the attack on Pearl Harbor and Japan’s entry into the Second World War, the Canadian government uproots Rose and her family from their home in Vancouver, and they become forced labourers on a sugar beet farm in Manitoba owned by the Thorne family. 

The gruelling farm work leaves Rose’s hands badly calloused and her career dreams threatened. But her family accepts their fate, often quoting the Japanese phrase “shikata ga nai,” meaning, “It cannot be helped.” But Rose doesn’t buy into that and clings to her dream.

“How can I say anything? God has turned His back on us.” RUSTY THORNE

The Thornes have a son, Rusty, a Canadian soldier serving in Hong Kong who ends up in a Japanese prisoner of war camp. The brutality of his captors strains his Christian faith, and he develops such hatred for them that he cannot tolerate the looks or language of the Japanese. 

Both Rose and Rusty suffer differently but deeply from the animosity shown to them during the war years. Rose, like other Japanese Canadians, is the target of undeserved bigotry even though she was born in Canada and never lived in Japan. “Dirty Jap” is just one of the names she is called while living in Vancouver.

Rusty’s suffering is physical as well as emotional. He and other POWs get so little food that they look like skeletons. They are tortured and beaten daily. 

The depth of Rusty’s discouragement can be seen when he declines a request to pray over the grave of a prisoner who died from a severe beating.

“How can I say anything?” he asks his friend, Bert. “God has turned His back on us.” 

The True Enemy

Meanwhile, Mrs. Thorne moves Rose from the farmworkers’ quarters into the Thorne homestead, and a friendship develops between the two women. Mrs. Thorne urges Rose to write to her son to encourage him, and her light-hearted, meaningful letters cause Rusty to daydream about her. But Rusty doesn’t know that Rose is Japanese.

On his first morning home after the war, he hears her playing the piano in the living room and is pleasantly surprised by her talent. But when she turns his way, he is shocked and repulsed by seeing that she is Japanese. 

Rose is devastated by his reaction. She, too, had fantasized about a possible relationship developing with Rusty, but suddenly that dream becomes a nightmare. To make matters worse, a dramatic accident puts Rose in the hospital and causes her to abandon her earlier career plans.

But the Christian faith she came to know during her stay with the Thorne family sustains her. She believes that God will see her through no matter what happens. Rusty, on the other hand, still struggles with his feelings about the Japanese. 

One night, when he wakes up with night sweats and memories of the POW camp, his mother reminds him that the Japanese are not his real enemy.

“The actual enemy is invisible to our human eyes but very real,” she tells Rusty. “He seeks to kill, steal and destroy. He is the enemy of all people because we are made in the image of God.” 

Daydreams Become Reality

With the prayers and help of his parents, Rusty returns to the faith he had before he went to war. Christ once again becomes Lord of his life.

At a church get-together, Rusty tells the congregation that he now knows “how beautiful a human heart can be when we learn to forgive. The community I came home to looks very different from the one I left. Diversity has made us stronger, and I hope it never returns to the old way again,” he tells them.

Looking at Rose, he says she is a reminder to him that “we are all God’s children, and He wants us to forgive one another, love one another and work together to bring His kingdom to earth.”

With both Rose and Rusty trusting in God for their future, their daydreams of a life together develop into reality. They fall deeply in love with each other and are married. 

And, as Rusty’s wife, Rose Onishi becomes a Rose Among Thornes.

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