Helen Remembers and a Book Is Born

Anne Neuberger describes partnering with Helen Hannan Parra to write the book Two Days and One Suitcase.

A writer’s research can lead down interesting paths. I never expected to meet the delightful, insightful Helen Hannan Parra! Nor did I anticipate learning the depth of the suffering and courage of Japanese-Americans during their imprisonment by their own country during World War II. But that is what happened when I coauthored the book Two Days and One Suitcase with Helen.

Through my work with Maryknoll, I had learned of Maryknoll missioners working in those incarceration camps and read about the Hannan family, who worked with the missioners. I reached out to a surviving family member, Helen.

Soon I was looking forward to emails from Helen, now in her 80s. Her letters showed me the tremendous personal anguish of the Japanese-Americans.

As I researched facts, Helen searched her memories. Her historical knowledge was impressive, but it was her own accounts that would make the story. She shared anecdotes of people, experiences and emotions, which I incorporated into the book, narrated in her 12-year-old voice.

She spoke, for instance, of her friend Tomiko, also age 12. Helen could go to Tomi’s quarters. But If they went to Helen’s, they first had to go to a guard tower, where an armed soldier supervised Helen signing permission for Tomi to visit her.

Helen chafed at this inequity and ached for Tomi’s quiet humiliation.

One day Tomi was sobbing. Her brother in the U.S. Army was severely injured. For weeks, his family waited for news. Helen could only listen to Tomi’s pain, and railed against the prejudice that kept this family from going to their son, who was fighting for the United States.

Helen’s outrage is still there after 70 years, as is her wisdom, making her descriptions more poignant.

I hope readers of this book, both children and adults, will see that an impressionable young girl observed how we humans deeply influence each other. That has touched her life ever since.

Featured image: Cover hints at the content of this book about the Hannan family’s experience in Japanese-American internment camps during World War II. 

For a copy of Two Days and One Suitcase, visit https://tinyurl.com/Two-days-and-one-suitcase

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About the author

Anne Neuberger

Anne Neuberger is a children's book author who has contributed to Maryknoll's mission education materials.