March 2008

Cynthia Reeser


The Commoner by John Burnham Schwartz

On the near-eve of the devastation that is to be dropped on Japan in 1945, a young girl’s father tells her a story. It is the myth of two cranes destined to travel the world together to fulfill a joint destiny. Separated by a treacherous storm, the two grow old on continents far removed from one another. When the cranes set out at the end of their lives seeking to reunite, they fly to each other and toward the sun – one from the East and the other from the West – and are never seen again.

When war comes to Japan, its effects are felt in the infertile land, in long lines of citizens from all walks of life waiting for rations, and in the leveling of class distinctions. It is during this time that the young girl, Haruko, begins to come of age.

As the immediacy of the country’s devastation scabs over with passing years, crops are planted in the dust of the incinerated dead and new life comes without regard to the past. In an era in which the emperor has recently declared himself to be human and not a descendant of the gods, Haruko is the only child of a well-to-do, but still common, sake brewing family. Her destiny is routed via her excellence at tennis, as it is the sport that leads her to play -- and beat -- the Crown Prince.

John Burnham Schwartz’s fourth novel is told with elegance and historical accuracy. It is a credit to the author that Haruko tells her story unpretentiously. Woven with language that is both touching and telling, the myth-like tale of Haruko’s life comes full circle in a very epic sense. She will give up the common life to become Japan’s Crown Princess and later its Empress, but will experience all that life entails with its freedom-stripping nuances: what it means to have the illusion of control but none of the power; how to live a life in which you are neither validated nor respected, but merely maintained; and most importantly, the struggle against imperial traditions that are as ancient as the country itself.

Schwartz not only sidesteps sentimentalism, but reliably tells a lovely tale without omitting the (albeit expertly controlled) emotion expected of his characters, and without steeping them in sentiment. Honest, forthright Haruko is a character who struggles against what, in spite of her station, remains her common status, and against the royal family, who schedule her every move and rarely permit her to see her children. But as the old order passes away and her children come of age themselves, the burden of their birth is borne in their inheritance of the missteps and suffocating ritual of their imperial forbears. The “centuries upon centuries of ritual contained like a single poem in a day” compound into the hope Haruko has for her son, the future Emperor: that while “the history of war and its horrors belonged to others before him,” her wish is that “he would not bear the burdens of its truths too personally.”

Haruko’s children are two facets of herself: when her daughter marries a commoner, re-entering the ordinary world, her name is stricken from the imperial registry, while her son sets his sights on a partner who is, in many ways, the independent career woman his mother would have been in different circumstances. As Haruko’s sense of duty obligates her to maintain a life-altering promise, the mythic elements throughout become the golden threads that make the novel at once picturesque and enduring. The obligation she fulfills to her daughter-in-law brings closure both to myth and to life in a mythic world.

Containing sociopolitical echoes of Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth, the language of The Commoner is as accessible and engaging as it is at the hands of an author such as Jeffrey Eugenides. Ultimately, Schwartz’s novel is a graceful narrative flight circumscribing the internal struggles faced by women from all cultures whose loyalty, duty and honor to oneself and one’s legacy are more important than the oldest traditions, however noble or common they may be.

The Commoner by John Burnham Schwartz
Nan A. Talese, Doubleday
ISBN: 978-0-385-51571-9
351 pages