A Shrug of the Shoulders

Elaine Cockrell

Latah Books

[Japanese American internees are watching a newsreel about the war.]

The screen showed a fierce battle scene. An American bomb hit a Japanese ship, and Thomas stood up and cheered. He raised his fist in the air, his shadow on the screen.

At his side, George pulled at his arm. “Sit down. Sit down, Thomas.” George tried to shush him, but his little brother didn’t listen.

“Yah! Take that. And that!” He was yelling at the top of his lungs…“I hate the damned Japs!” He looked around at the others. “Look what they’ve done to us!” Trembling, he slowly sank into his seat.

          from A Shrug of the Shoulders



Caught in the riptides of history

Retired English teacher and former Huntington Middle School principal Elaine Cockrell has written a powerful book about the internment of Japanese Americans in the northwest during World War II. I feel privileged to have read this novel first as a rough draft, and now, years later, in its final published form.

The title refers to a Japanese expression, Shikata ga nai, roughly translated as “It can’t be helped,” suggesting either a quiet fatalism in the face of the unavoidable, or the fortitude to bear the unbearable.

There are several stories here: First, it is a saga of families caught in the riptides of history, as the Yanos from Toppenish, Washington, are required by executive order to leave (and thereby lose) their farm, and the Mita family from Oregon their business, gathering as internees at the Portland Assembly Center, formally used as stockyards.

It’s also a love story, where nisei (second generation Japanese Americans) George Yano and Molly Mita delicately explore their attraction to each other, contrary to their parents’ ancestral custom of selecting a partner for them to marry.

It’s a war story on the home front as experienced in the small towns and farms of eastern Oregon where the Yanos help harvest the sugar beet crops. Here Cockrell captures the little daily joys and the occasional great sorrows of families during wartime.

And finally, it’s a coming-of-age story where sixteen-year-old Ellis Hertzog wrestles with the ingrained “anti-Jap” attitudes among the townspeople, and even within his own family, as he works alongside and gets to know George and his younger brother and sister.

It speaks to the power of Cockrell’s writing that we as readers feel the anger, the humiliation, and the humanity of the main characters. We cringe at the casual prejudice and discrimination George and his family experience; we sigh with relief, grateful when they are treated with dignity, decency, and fairness on the Allen brothers’ farm.

Cockrell has done her research, years spent reviewing the archival records and interviewing Japanese Americans who lived in the camps and worked in the fields, and she has produced a fictionalized account suitable for Young Adults as well as no-longer-young adults.

Such historical fiction helps us see racism in hindsight—the mundane tolerance of de-humanizing a people and de-personalizing individuals—so we can better develop the foresight to recognize it in the present and in the future.


This review first appeared in The Columbia River Reader (April 15, 2022.) Reprinted with permission.