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A war bride’s life reimagined

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After her mother passed away 15 years ago, Margaret Dilloway found a copy of a book stashed in a drawer at the family’s San Diego home.

"The American Way of Housekeeping" was, essentially, a handbook created by the wives of American officers for their Japanese housekeepers soon after World War II ended. Written in both English and Japanese, it provided a guide for how to do everything from cooking proper American food and using household appliances to cleaning room to room in a precise sequence.

Dilloway’s mom, Suiko, who was from Kumamoto, Japan, had received the book from her father after they wed. The couple met in Iwakuni when her dad, who grew up in Pennsylvania, was stationed there with the Navy.

"My dad thought the book was for housewives," said Dilloway, 36, a stay-at-home mom who lives in Hawaii Kai with her husband, Keith, and three children.

It turned out that many American men thought that way, too, and bought the handbook for their Japanese war brides.

This stayed with Dilloway for years.

In 1999, while living in Lakewood, Wash., she wrote a one-act play about a Japanese mother and her daughter and their various misunderstandings. It got a staged reading at a festival there, but Dilloway never developed it further.

"But I kept thinking about it," she said.

About five years later, she thought again about that handbook for Japanese housekeepers she had found among her mother’s cookbooks. She was pregnant with her third child and wondered how strange it must have been for her mother to live in an American suburb, how isolated she must have felt.


Author of "How to Be an American Housewife" (Putnam Books, $24.95)

Age: 36

Family: Married to Keith Dilloway, with three kids

Resides: Hawaii Kai

Hobbies: Crafts, scrapbooking, snorkeling, stand-up paddle surfing

Inspired by: Madeleine L’Engle, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ray Bradbury, Amy Tan, Anne Tyler. "There are many more that I can say I love, but I think those five have given me the most ‘aha’ moments as a writer and made me improve in some way."

Most surprising thing about Hawaii: "That there are so many writers living here. Everybody here is quite friendly."

On the Net:

Meet the author: 11 a.m. Saturday at Hawaii Kai Public Library, 249 Lunalilo Home Road


After several years of rewrites and searching for an agent — not to mention raising three kids and moving to Hawaii — Dilloway found a publisher for her first novel, "How to Be an American Housewife" (Putnam Books, $24.95), based on her strained relationship with her own mom.

The book, which was released last month, tells the story of Shoko, a Japanese woman who married an American GI after World War II. It centers around Shoko’s bittersweet life in San Diego, the trauma of war and her thorny relationship with her daughter, Sue.

Dilloway structured the book around fictitious excerpts from the housewives’ handbook, which offered advice such as not to give babies sharp objects and to say "yes" only when you are certain you understand what your mistress is saying.

"For the first time, I thought of how difficult it must have been for my mother, coming to this country and not knowing a lick of English, to live among people who perhaps thought she had just crawled out of a mud hut where she ate parasite-laden food and picked up infants by their ankles," Dilloway said. "I wondered what inner life my mother had, what her hopes and dreams were, and how I managed to fulfill or fail these."

DILLOWAY WAS 20 and attending Scripps College in California when her mother died due to complications from an enlarged heart. She was 62.

"She had been wasting away for a year," Dilloway recalled. "I was in college and coming home to see her. It was a really hard time."

The author admitted she wasn’t particularly close to her mother, who tended to be hard to her. "We never had the sort of relationship where I could pour out my troubles to her. She wasn’t receptive in that way," Dilloway said.

Having her own children changed how Dilloway perceived her mom, who didn’t live long enough to see her grandchildren. It made her want to understand the woman more — and writing the book was, in a way, part of that therapy.

"I wanted her to live again," she said, "so I wrote about her. I felt, somehow, it was a way to get to know her again."

Dilloway just finished her second novel, "The Cupcake Queen," set in both Hawaii and California. It’s about a cupcake baker who is haunted by her dead husband.

"I actually began working on it before my husband got a job in Hawaii," she said, "so the novel has benefited greatly from my hands-on experience here. It seems like just about everyone I talk to who’s grown up in Hawaii has a few ghost stories to tell, and I wanted to capture that feeling in the book."


When Father decided I was too old to be a tomboy, around age thirteen, he made me take dance lessons, like all young ladies did. I did what my father told me to do. I was disobedient, not foolish. I learned how to flip open a fan with a flick of my wrist, peering over it at the audience. I also learned the shamisen, which was a little harp. The teacher said I was a beauty, and very talented. I didn’t quite believe her until I saw how the men watched me at our talent show.

I came onstage in my beautiful silk kimono and red lips as my teacher played her shamisen. The bulbs shone in my eyes, but I would not squint. I lowered my gaze and snapped open my fan as I launched into the dance.

I heard an intake of breath from the men. I looked up and saw their admiring gazes fixed on me. I blushed, and kept on, knowing that wherever I went onstage their stares would follow. The other girls became invisible. I had more power in dance than I did at baseball.

I understood then that my skills in school or in sports would not make my life come about in the way I wished. I took my bows at that recital, vowing I would learn what I needed and make the best marriage possible.

Reprinted from "How to Be an American Housewife" by Margaret Dilloway, by arrangement with Putnam, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., copyright © 2010 by Margaret Dilloway. To buy the book, go to


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