Plum Wine

Trade Paperback

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Bottles of homemade plum wine link two worlds, two eras, and two lives through the eyes of Barbara Jefferson, a young American teaching at a Tokyo university. When her surrogate mother, Michi, dies, Barbara inherits an extraordinary gift: a tansu chest filled with bottles of homemade plum wine wrapped in sheets of rice paper covered in elegant calligraphy—one bottle for each of the last twenty years of Michi’s life.

Why did Michi leave her memoirs to Barbara, who cannot read Japanese? Seeking a translator, Barbara turns to an enigmatic pottery artist named Seiji, who will offer her a companionship as tender as it is forbidden. But as the two lovers unravel the mysteries of Michi’s life, a story that draws them through the aftermath of World War II and the hidden world of the hibakusha, Hiroshima survivors, Barbara begins to suspect that Seiji may be hiding the truth about Michi’s past—and a heartbreaking secret of his own.


“A mystery that unfolds as beautifully, delicately, and ceremoniously as a lotus blossom. One of the most memorable novels I have read in many years.”—Lee Smith, author of On Agate Hill

“A heartrending story of love and loss...masterful.”—Seattle Times

“Angela Davis-Gardner is a wondrous and generous writer."—Amy Tan

“The story of a powerful and moody love affair between a visiting American schoolteacher and a Japanese potter, a survivor of the Hiroshima bombing. In stark and lovely prose, Davis-Gardner creates a believable excursion into the deep heart of a good young woman.”—Alan Cheuse, NPR’s All Things Considered

Plum Wine is equal parts mystery and romance, an enchantment cast with wise and graceful passion.”—Karen Joy Fowler, author of The Jane Austen Book Club

“A beautiful and moving story, filled with grace, sorrow, sin and redemption.”—Charlotte Observer

“Beautiful, atmospheric.... Davis-Gardner's sensitive, elegant prose paints the furtiveness of forbidden love against the broad canvas of war's lasting effects.”—Cleveland Plain Dealer


Chapter One

The chest arrived on a gray afternoon in late January, three weeks after Michi-san’s death. Barbara sat huddled at the electric table in her six-mat room, eating peanut butter washed down with green tea and reading student quizzes on original sin. It had just begun to snow, white petals floating haphazardly up and down, as if the direction of the sky were somehow in question. She kept glancing out the window, thinking of Rie’s refusal to turn in a paper. Michi-san would have consoled her about Rie, and advised her what to do. If only Michi were here: a thought that had lately become a mantra.

As she took another spoonful of peanut butter, there was a knock at the door. She extracted her legs from beneath the warm table and jumped up. Junko, Hiroko, and Sumi, the students who shared a room downstairs, had talked about dropping by. Barbara’s apartment was a mess—she hadn’t cleaned in days—but it was too late now.

On the kitchen radio, Mick Jagger was lamenting at low volume his lack of satisfaction. She left the radio on; the girls were “becoming groovy,” as Sumi put it, about Western culture.

Outside the door, instead of the three bright student faces, was a small, formal delegation. Miss Fujizawa, president of Kodaira College, gazed at her beneath hooded eyelids. Beside her was Mrs. Nakano, the English department head who had hired her last year in Chapel Hill. Behind the women were two of the college workmen, Sato and Murai. They all bowed and said good afternoon, the women in English, the men in Japanese.

Clearly they intended to come in. Barbara mentally scanned her rooms; she could ask them to wait just a minute while she scooped up the dirty clothes.

“We are sorry to disturb you,” Miss Fujizawa said. “Professor Nakamoto has made you a bequeathal.”

“A bequeathal?” Barbara glanced at Michi-san’s apartment, catercornered from hers across the hall; for the first time since Michi’s death, the apartment door stood open.

“A sort of tansu chest. Not a particularly fine one, I’m afraid.” Miss Fujizawa nodded toward the small chest that stood between the two workmen. “This note was appended to it,” she said, handing Barbara a slender envelope. Inside, on a sheet of rice paper, was one sentence, in English, “This should be given to Miss Barbara Jefferson, Apartment #6 Sango-kan, with best wishes for your discovery of Japan. Sincerely, Michiko Nakamoto.”

Barbara stared down at the precise, familiar handwriting. It was almost like hearing her speak.

“Apparently you were held in high favor,” Miss Fujizawa said. “There were few individual recipients of her effects. May we enter?”

“Yes, of course. Please. Dozo.” Barbara backed down the hall to the kitchen, where she turned off the radio. Miss Fujizawa, leaning on her cane, led the procession to the back of the apartment. Mrs. Nakano, ruddy-cheeked with a cap of shiny black hair, was next, followed by the two men who carried the tansu chest between them.

The chest was small, three-drawered, a third the size of Barbara’s clothes tansu. She recognized the plum blossom designs on the tansu’s hardware, the dark metal plates to which the drawer pulls were attached.

“It’s the wine chest!” she called out, following them down the hall to the tatami sitting room. The workmen had placed the tansu between her kotatsu table and chest of drawers.

“Wine?” Miss Fujizawa and Mrs. Nakano said in unison. The women bent to pull open the top drawer. Miss Fujizawa began an intense consultation in Japanese with Mrs. Nakano. Barbara did not understand a word, but the tone of dismay was clear. Michi-san had told her that while Japanese men may drink a great deal, it was frowned upon for women of a cer-tain class, and especially the women of Kodaira College. A lit-tle plum wine—umeshu—was acceptable, however, considered beneficial for ladies’ digestion.

“It’s just umeshu,” Barbara said.

Over Mrs. Nakano’s shoulder, she could see the row of bottles. Each one was wrapped in heavy rice paper that was tied with a cord and sealed with a large dot of red wax. On the front of each bottle was a date, written in ink with a brush, and below it, a vertical line of calligraphy, perhaps the date in Japanese. One night when she and Michi had been drinking umeshu, Michi had showed her the vintage wines, but Barbara hadn’t noticed the dates. She leaned closer, looking at the numbers. A bottle of last year’s wine, 1965, was in the right corner of the drawer; next to it was 1964.

Miss Fujizawa closed the top drawer and opened the next, still talking nonstop to Mrs. Nakano. Barbara wanted to reach past the women and touch the wines. She couldn’t wait for them to leave.

Miss Fujizawa turned to her. “We are sorry, Miss Jefferson. We were under the impression that the chest contained pottery, or some such. Professor Nakamoto would not have meant to trouble you with these bottles. I will have them removed for you at once.”

“But she meant . . .” She thrust Michi’s note at Miss Fujizawa. “It says right here, this should be given . . .”

“The bequeathal letter refers to the tansu, not its contents,” Miss Fujizawa said, with a dismissive wave at the note. “Doubtless she realized you needed another article of furniture into which to place your things.” She glanced about the room, at the stacks of books and papers on the tatami matting, and on the low table, in the midst of student papers, the jar of peanut butter with the spoon handle rising from it like an exclamation point. Sweaters and underwear were heaped in the tokonoma—the alcove where objects of beauty were supposed to be displayed—obscuring the bottom half of the fox-woman scroll that hung above it.

“Please,” Barbara said. “I’d like to keep the wine, for sentimental reasons. It’s only umeshu. Michi . . . Nakamoto-sensei . . . made it herself, from the plum trees on the campus and at her childhood home.”

“You are mistaken, I believe. Umeshu is made in large jars, not in bottles of foreign manufacture. These must contain stronger spirits.”

“But I saw these bottles—I’m sure this is umeshu. Please, it would be a comfort . . .”

Miss Fujizawa was silent, fixing upon her a basilisk gaze, her expression the same as the day she’d paid an unannounced visit to Barbara’s conversation class and found her demonstrating American dances—the twist, the monkey, and the swim—for her giggling students. Barbara’s predecessor, Carol Sutherland, would never have exhibited such behavior. There was a picture of her in the college catalogue, lecturing from her desk on the raised teaching platform.

“We can store the wine in the cellar of the hall,” Miss Fujizawa was saying. “It will only be in your way, I think. A trouble to you.” She laughed suddenly. “I do not think you are a drunkard.”

Mrs. Nakano laughed politely, covering her mouth with one hand.

Sato and Murai bobbed up and down, grinning. Though they didn’t understand English, they were used to humorous incidents at the gaijin’s apartment.

“I believe she feels quite sad in consequence of Nakamoto-sensei’s death,” Mrs. Nakano said.

“Yes, exactly,” Barbara said. She had a wrenchingly clear memory of Michi-san,wren-like in her brown skirt and sweater as she stood at Barbara’s door, a plate of freshly cooked tempura in her hands. “I just wanted to see your face this evening—how are you doing?”

“We are all saddened by Professor Nakamoto’s unfortunate demise,” Miss Fujizawa said. “Miss Jefferson, if you would kindly wait in the Western-style room, we will see to the arrangement of the chest for you.” She spoke in Japanese to the workmen, gesturing toward the open drawer of bottles. They came to attention and stepped forward. “Hai,” they said, bowing energetically. “Hai, hai.”

“I want the wine,” Barbara shouted. “Michi-san gave it to me—you can’t take it.”

For a moment they studied her gravely. Then all but Miss Fujizawa tactfully lowered their eyes. “We are sorry we have upset you too much,” Miss Fujizawa said. “We will leave you to your rest.”

They turned and filed down the hall past the kitchen and Western-style parlor, Miss Fujizawa pausing at each room to take in its condition. The door closed.

Barbara listened to the footsteps going down the stairs, then sat beside the tansu, inhaling its dark, tangy odor. Michi had told her the chest was unusual in that it had been made entirely of camphor wood. The bottles of wine were stocky, the papers tight around them. She laid her hand on one of the wines, feeling the coolness of the glass beneath the paper. The coolness rose up her arm, and gooseflesh prickled her skin.

Michi-san had known she was going to die, otherwise she wouldn’t have thought of leaving her the chest.

She looked at the note again. There was a date: 1.1.1966. New Year’s Day, just a few weeks ago. She’d been in Michi’s apartment that night. Had she written this before the New Year’s dinner or afterward? She imagined Michi sitting at her table, the dishes cleared away, the pen moving across the page. Four days later, she had died.

Barbara leapt up and went across the hall to Michi’s apartment. The door was closed, but not locked. She stepped inside and walked to the large sitting room. There was nothing but tatami matting and bare walls. Gone were the crowded bookshelves, the woodblock prints, the collection of bonsai, and the low table below the window. Michi had served the New Year’s Day meal there, all the foods prepared just for Barbara: the chewy rice cakes called mochi and bream wrapped in bamboo leaves and served with carrots cut in the shape of turtles “for good luck and longevity.” Had she said for your good luck and longevity? She thought of Michi’s face, her sympathetic but penetrating gaze, her full lips; perhaps there had been a melancholy smile.

Reader's Guide

1. Discuss the storytelling approach used in Plum Wine. Does it change the reading experience to watch history unfold from the translation of buried papers? Is this narrative approach effective?

2. Discuss the significance of a fox to the Japanese. What is so appealing about the stories about the Fox-Woman? Can Barbara be considered a fox? If so, in what ways?

3. “It was strange, she thought, how the placement of objects affected them. It was true for people too.” (page 12) Sentiments of alienation engulf Barbara throughout the novel. What makes her feel so different?

4. How does learning about Michi-San, Seji, and Rie’s Hiroshima experiences affect Barbara? Do their stories further distinguish her or do they make her feel more connected?

5. Memories from the bombing haunt Seiji and Michi. Describe some of these haunting images. How do these terrible recollections fit into the larger scope of the book?

6. Barbara is deeply affected by the revelation that Michi, Seiji, and her student Rie are survivors of the atomic bombing. It is even harder for her to understand the devastating psychological effects wrought by war. How do her feelings change after she runs into American officers on a train ride and when she learns of Rie’s side job?

7. Tradition and heritage are major themes throughout this novel. How are they treated differently by Japanese and American characters? Does the cultural distinction prohibit Barbara from participating in Japanese traditions?

8. “Hibakusha have become almost a pariah caste in Japan.”(p. 99) Why are Hiroshima survivors, “hibakusha,” tainted? Do you think Seji is correct by saying hibakusha never love?

9. Michi-san’s fondness for plum trees leads her to name her daughter Ume, which means plum. What does the plum tree symbolize?

10. Why did Michi leave Barbara her papers? Explain what it means to have “an inheritance of absence.” (p. 179)

11. How does Rie explain that one’s true valor rises above class? Does this idea of valor above class transcend all cultures? Is this a modern idea or can it be traced throughout history?

12. Plum Wine portrays the bonds people form under the cruelest of circumstances. Discuss the connections between the characters, their traumas in both past and present, and the wars that they survived.

13. Barbara realizes that Seiji is leaving out parts of Michi’s writing in his translation. What secret does Barbara uncover? In what ways are Seiji’s actions the result of his cultural perspective? In what ways do they transcend cultural concerns?

14. Barbara comes to Japan on a personal journey in search of the essence of her mother. Did she accomplish her goal? Why or why not?

15. We often read about wartime experiences from a male point of view. Based on Plum Wine, how is wartime experience different for a female? As a reader, does this change the way you think about the events and repercussions of World War II?

16. Discuss the issues relating to motherhood in the novel. Describe Barbara’s relationship with her mother and Michi’s with Ume–and Michi and Barbara’s mother-daughter relationship with each other. Why do you think Michi and Barbara formed this type of bond?

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