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Without a Penny in My Pocket: My Bittersweet Memories Before and After WWII by Marie Castro

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Marie Castro was born and raised on the island of Saipan, part of a collection of islands known as the Mariana Islands.  Life on Saipan was governed by an individual’s dedication to family, farm, and God.  Marie recounts many of the games and activities her family enjoyed together when she was a young girl; without electricity – much less cable television or the Internet – family members often sat together on the back porch, enjoying the touch of a cool breeze on moonlit nights.  With similar clarity, Marie describes the various foods her mother prepared for the family, all composed of ingredients native to the island.  Then, everything changed during the Japanese occupation of Saipan.  As the Japanese Empire spread its tyrannical roots, Marie’s life became a living hell.  At school, children were harshly punished for even the most minor infraction of the school behavioral code.  Punishment was so callous, in fact, that a classmate in the second grade was beaten to death by a teacher.  At home, families were forbidden to speak any language other than Japanese, which, for Marie, meant that she was unable to express to her parents how hopeless she felt under Japanese governance.  Soon, Saipan would become a major battleground during WWII, with American troops arriving to liberate the island and rescue Marie’s family from hiding.  But for the people of Saipan, rescue could not come quickly enough.

Without a Penny in My Pocket grabs hold of the reader’s heartstrings, providing a constant hand-off between fond memories and living nightmares from Marie’s past.  Readers will be especially struck by the strength of this story’s narrative, which is bolstered by black-and-white photographs throughout and maps of the island where relevant.  This heartbreaking memoir also serves as a commentary on the spread and dissolution of culture, sometimes for the better, but often to the detriment of one group of people or the other.  As we continue to barrel through the twenty-first century, this discussion becomes ever more important.  For anyone interested in war history or well-told historical memoirs, Without a Penny in My Pocket comes highly recommended.