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Friday, August 24, 2012
At the Vermont College alumni weekend in July, I stumbled in the bookstore upon the novel Nobody Knows by author Shelley Tanaka, who was one of my advisors when I was a student. The boy on the cover made me curious, his dispassionate expression inviting me to find out what the book was about. The novel, I soon discovered, was inspired by the movie of the same title, by Hriokazu Kore-eda, based on real events in the lives of four siblings living in Tokyo. For those interested in craft, check out Shelley Tanaka's interview with author Uma Krishnaswami, in which they discuss the obstacles encountered in writing a novel based on a movie.
Akira, the twelve year old boy on the cover of Nobody Knows, becomes a default parent in charge of caring for his younger two sisters and brother. In the beginning of the story Akira asks his mother, as she applies makeup before going out, if she will be late. She answers, '"Let's see. What's today? Oh, I guess so. Maybe. Maybe I'll be late."' The reader begins to see that these children have to depend on themselves.
Mom returns erratically to the apartment, then eventually, not at all, leaving little money. At first, Akira pays the rent, the utilities, buys food, and takes care of his siblings; the youngest is Yuki, a five year old girl.
As I read, I expected that someone will save these children from the worst, but even as there are adults who suspect that these children are on their own, no one steps in to take over. The reader sees the children in isolation slowly starve, garbage pile up, and the utilities shut off, with Akira unable to provide what his family needs.
The ending is tragic (I won't reveal it here) but not completely tragic.
So where is the light at the end of this older middle grade novel? Like the children fleeing the Khmer Rouge in Never Fall Down, it's in the ability of some children to survive and maintain hope against all odds, even with no one watching over them. That's what Tanaka shows us and, besides beautiful writing, what makes this novel well worth the read. The fact that this is based on a true story, makes it even more poignant.