Saturday Excerpt: The Woman in the White Kimono by Ana Johns
Looking to start your weekend with a gripping read? The Woman int he White Kimono by Ana Johns combines the timelines of two women separated by history. You can discover more below!
Japan, 1957. Seventeen-year-old Naoko Nakamura’s prearranged marriage to the son of her father’s business associate would secure her family’s status in their traditional Japanese community, but Naoko has fallen for another man—an American sailor, a gaijin—and to marry him would bring great shame upon her entire family. When it’s learned Naoko carries the sailor’s child, she’s cast out in disgrace and forced to make unimaginable choices with consequences that will ripple across generations.
America, present day. Tori Kovac, caring for her dying father, finds a letter containing a shocking revelation—one that calls into question everything she understood about him, her family and herself. Setting out to learn the truth behind the letter, Tori’s journey leads her halfway around the world to a remote seaside village in Japan, where she must confront the demons of the past to pave a way for redemption.
In breathtaking prose and inspired by true stories from a devastating and little-known era in Japanese and American history, The Woman in the White Kimono illuminates a searing portrait of one woman torn between her culture and her heart, and another woman on a journey to discover the true meaning of home.
Even at night with half the staff, the Taussig Cancer Center ran as shipshape as its namesake. With Dr. Amon at the helm, I prayed my father could somehow weather the storm, but his lapsing health had me perched at his side, watching for signs.
Although I had the lights dimmed and the TV on mute, my father wrestled with sleep. Machines hummed, monitors beeped, conversations rolled like waves from the hall. Someone whistled.
“Whistling up a wind was risky,” Pops would say about his days at sea. “It could summon strong gales and rough waters.” The hospital wasn’t his navy ship from the fifties, but with the improbable coincidence of sharing its name, I wouldn’t snub the nautical superstitions. I found my feet and closed the door.
“What…” Pops flailed his arms, causing the plastic IV lines to flap like ropes against a mast. “Tori?”
“I’m here, Pops.” I hurried over, placed my hand on his arm. “You’re at the hospital, remember?” He’d woken disoriented several times over the last week with shorter periods of rest in between. This had become our new norm.
He strained to sit up and grimaced with pain, so I placed a hand behind his upper back and lifted to work a pillow there. With both arms braced under his, I helped him shift, amazed how light he’d become. He’d joked that he was “half the man” but I didn’t laugh. The truth was far from funny and the joke far from true. He was still my larger-than-life father. I handed him the plastic cup of ice. He shook it to rattle the chips loose, then sipped on what had melted. One taste triggered the reflex—a static cough he struggled to clear. I took the cup, gave him tissues and waited for the fit to pass.
With a final expulsion, he lolled back and closed his eyes. “You okay?” Empty words, because of course he wasn’t, but he assured me with a nod just the same.
Then he sighed, a deep, raspy breath, his words pushing through it. “Did I ever tell you about the famous blue street? It was the first thing I saw when I stepped off my ship in Japan.”
“And the girl who liked your eyes was second, right?” I brightened, happy he was lucid and hoping he’d stay that way long enough to retell it.
“Well, I looked a little better back then.”
“You look a little better now.” He did. Color warmed his cheeks; his eyes were sharp and focused. His movement had improved. It was wonderful and discomforting at the same time. Dr. Amon said to watch for a “rally of improvement” right before Pops would take his final turn.
For my father, the last hurrah. And for me, a final story. From the chair beside his bed, I leaned in and propped my chin under my fist. “So, you took one step, bent low to run your fingers over the reflective stones embedded in the street and…?”
“And I stood up and there she was.”
“Yes. And I stared back, saw my future and fell in love.” Pops angled his head with a soft smile.
Even though it was the condensed version, I fell in love with that story all over again because it led to all the others. “Every time I came to port, she would meet me there,” Pops said. “But I was always coming and going. That’s just how it was. We were two ships passing in the night like in the Longfellow poem.” Pops wheezed a labored breath.
I reached for his freckled hand and squeezed.
“After the service, I was landlocked in Detroit and drown- ing in a bottle. But then I met your mama, and she saved me.” His eyes locked to mine. “And here’s what you need to know. Are you listening?”
“I am.” I hung on every word.
“Mama was the love of my life, but before that life, I lived another. That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you.” His lips twitched.
When? When did he try to tell me? My mind raced through every moment of the last few weeks, trying to decipher what I’d missed. I didn’t even understand what “lived another life” could mean. I wasn’t sure I wanted to.
“It’d be easier if you just read my letter. I need you to do that now, okay, Tori? It’s time.”
The swell in my chest was instant. It inflated behind constricted ribs and strangled my heart. I held the emotional bubble in place with shallow breaths, fearing it might burst. I couldn’t move.
He reached over, patted my hand. “It’s with my stuff. Go and get it.”
I found his bag behind the restroom door, placed it on the counter and unzipped the top. With trembling hands, I rummaged through his clothes but froze as my fingers grazed paper. I pinched to pull the envelope free, then stood with it and stared.
The red ink. The kanji script. The creases and folds. Walking back to face my father, our eyes met.
A dying man. A heartbroken daughter. “Come here, sit down,” he said. “It’s okay.”
But it wasn’t. Because you couldn’t take back goodbye. I wasn’t ready to say mine, so I didn’t want to hear my father’s. I couldn’t.
The back of my throat ached from the pressure. “I’ll, um…” I stepped toward him, then stopped, needing everything to slow down and take a breath, so I could, too. The stress of the last few months, the heartbreak of his slow decline, the unrelenting cancer, and now… A lump rose in my throat as tears formed. I made quick steps to the door.
Pops said something, but I was already in the hall hidden from view. I covered my mouth and took long, deep breaths, trying to fight back the swell of emotion. How did we get to this point? We had researched treatments, applied every home remedy, arranged for a specialist, and it still wasn’t enough. Confusion and guilt stacked heavy on my shoulders, and I wilted under its weight. I glanced at the envelope. In hindsight, I should have opened it on the day it arrived.