Education About Asia: Online Archives

Ash: A Novel

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Holly Thompson, in her novel Ash, set in the Kyushu city of Kagoshima in 1985, traces the discoveries made by one such young American teacher in Japan. Caitlan, the protagonist, has an assignment in the similar but smaller scale program that preceded JET, the MEF, or Monbusho English Fellows. Although her teaching experience forms one strand of the story, readers gradually learn that what has really brought Caitlan to Japan is a quest to understand and come to terms with the death of a childhood friend in Kyoto fifteen years earlier. Daughter of an American scholar of Japanese religion who had brought his family to Japan for a year of research, Caitlan and her entire family had been devastated by the death of her Japanese playmate in a drowning accident. While Caitlan’s search is essentially individual and subjective, only tangentially linked to her teaching position, her discoveries about guilt, religion, and family support come through the wisdom and compassion of Japanese characters in the novel—the family of her childhood friend, the elderly widow of a Zen priest, a high school girl of both American and Japanese parentage, and Caitlan’s Japanese boyfriend. In her final reconciliation, Caitlan does, in fact, “discover Japan.”