The Last Year of the War, Susan Meissner, author; Kimberly Farr, narrator

warTwo young teenage girls meet in an internment camp called Crystal City, in Texas, after the United States enters World War II. Although they are residents there, with their needs provided for, they are really prisoners. One, Elise Sontag (now Elise Dove), is from Germany and the other, Mariko Inoue Hayashi, is from Japan. Over a period of about a year, the friends become as close as family. They share their innermost thoughts and dreams with each other which is what helps them to survive this trying time. They make a pact to meet after the war. Together, they will find jobs in New York and face their future. They are, after all, Americans! This time frame in American history will remain a stain on America because of the grave injustices perpetrated upon many innocent victims of circumstance.
In 2010, Elise Sontag Dove is 81 years old and suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease. She refers to the disease almost as an alter ego named Agnes and notes that Agnes is always trying to take over her mind. Sometimes, she can resist, sometimes she cannot. She has no idea for how much longer her brain will work. When her young housekeeper introduces her to Google and shows her how to do a search, she searches for and finds a possible match to her old friend Mariko. There is someone with the same name living in Los Angeles. If it is Mariko, she too is 81. Elise would really like to reunite with her, and she makes arrangements to travel there, hoping that Mariko is still alive and that “Agnes” will not interfere to prevent their reunion.

As the novel develops, Elise tells the story of her friendship with Mariko which began in 1943 when they were both interned with their families. She relates what has happened in her life since they were separated in 1944. Mariko’s family was sent to Crystal City after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. The government feared that the Japanese Americans might have dual loyalties with a conflict about their devotion to their country of origin or their country of choice. They were easily identified so they were rounded up and their bank accounts were frozen, communication to others was limited to them, and their belongings were sacrificed since they could only take a limited amount with them to the camp. Basically, their lives were stolen.

Elise’s family was interned based on circumstantial evidence, a copy of a book, a careless remark by her father, his career as a chemist, and simple gossip. It was enough to condemn her father as a security risk. He was arrested leaving her mother to fend for herself without enough money or resources to do so effectively. They, too, had their bank accounts frozen and were limited in communicating with outsiders. Her father petitioned to be transferred to a family “camp”, even though it might mean that they would eventually be sent back to Germany and not allowed to remain in the United States. He knew that his wife was unable to deal with the situation alone. She was frail emotionally. When his request was granted, they were sent to Crystal City. For both families, their former lives were erased. Eventually, the children’s education was interrupted and their dreams were placed on hold.

Both families had lived in America for years and the children were American, but the parents were now immigrants from countries at war with America. They were possibly enemy aliens and as such had to be monitored. Before the war ended, Elise’s family was repatriated to Germany, traded for Americans as her father had feared. To keep his family together, he had risked that outcome for them and now they were sent to a war torn country. After the war ended, Mariko’s Family was sent back to Japan. Her father wished to return to Japan and had requested it. Mariko spoke Japanese, but she had never been to Japan. Elise neither spoke German nor had she ever been to Germany. Both came from different cultures and family values which affected their futures and separated the friends for decades.
Mariko’s father remained Japanese, above all, and he insisted on the same for his family. He followed the old ways and culture of total obeisance and obedience. Soon after their return to Japan, he arranged a marriage for Mariko, now 17.  She was forbidden to contact Elise who was considered a dangerous influence by her father. Elise’s father was far more open-minded, compassionate and rational. He showed his daughter tremendous respect and was grateful for her maturity in the face of so much evil. Now, at 17, living and working in Germany, she fortuitously meets a very wealthy American soldier who offers her an escape route back to America. Her father gives his permission for her to marry. Soon she is back in America where she eventually lives the good life, not without further trials, however. Still, David Dove proves to be her knight in shining armor. He lived in a “castle”, a mansion in Los Angeles. He had a trust fund, and she would never want for anything again.
As the story is told, there is almost too much detail making it play out very slowly. Also, the story tends to get too syrupy, at times, which tended to diminish its impact. Elise is portrayed as a perfect specimen of a human being, always understanding and compassionate, always adjusting to the situation and accepting it, although she is merely a child for most of the book. Her father insists he is an American, and he always offers rational, compassionate advice. He always quietly deals with what has befallen them. The brief friendship between the two teens also seemed to hold too much power over Elise’s life. Its influence caused her great sadness and, perhaps, it was used by the author to show that although she was placed in a situation as an adult, she was merely a young girl robbed of her childhood, forced to deal with an untenable situation.  She and Mariko both seemed to be able to make very adult decisions.

Therefore, the story often feels contrived as if its purpose is to lecture the reader about right and wrong, good and evil. At times, the novel seemed more like a fairy tale with a happy ending for all. Elise finds her prince, Mariko falls in love with her prince, everyone winds up with a satisfactory life. Even Elise’s married name seems to be contrived. The dove is a symbol of peace and love, innocence and purity, all of the conflicts faced in the book. Elise, at the end, as Mrs. Dove, discovers her calling in life, the calling she had searched for since childhood. She was born to provide love in the world.

There was a subtle condemnation of Communism, in the character of a naïve David Dove, a budding Communist, and its opposite in the character of his brother, Hugh Dove, who was more realistic, but kind as a capitalist. Overall, though, the Doves were symbols of the decadence and selfishness of the rich and Elise was the symbol of the charity and compassion of those less fortunate who were not greedy. She was portrayed nun-like in her thoughts, as much more humane than most, always willing to sacrifice her own needs for the needs of others. Sometimes poor choices were made, but they were described as the only possible choice to be made under the circumstances. The consequences ultimately led back to redemption and reward. Everyone was a victim, in some way, and most were redeemed in some way in the end.

The narrator read the book a little too slowly, over-enunciated and over-emoted making herself too much a part of the story. At times, I wasn’t even sure I would finish the book because the author seemed to be trying to find good in all evil, even when there was no good to be found, and the narrative seemed to be directed to a younger audience. Every character seemed to be using someone for something and rationalizing that behavior. At other times, everything seemed whitewashed rather than authentic, as if the author would provide a happy ending, no matter where the story led.  I thought the book would have been better titled “Pollyanna Redux”, since it dripped with idealism and a progressive message of “absolute kindness” in the face of “absolute power” which corrupts.

The author seemed to want the reader to understand that the Germans suffered as well as the other victims of the war. She overlooked or didn’t concern herself with the fact that they were possibly complicit. Fear was no excuse. Greed, jealousy and nationalism drove most of them. They could not have remained as ignorant as they professed to be about the heinous behavior of their government. After all, Hitler did not keep his dreams of Aryan dominance a secret! Where did they think the Jews and other victims were? Why did they move into their homes and take their belongings? Ultimately, however, FDR’s administration should not have interned these Americans. It was the leaders of their country of origin that were evil. The book does shine a light on this American injustice.

in the end, the book was well researched and covered a lot of territory regarding facts, but it was presented as a fairy tale. It philosophized and lectured me as I read, regarding political views and lifestyles, class division and economic inequality, being a native of a country or a “foreigner”. It appeared to be trying to reinforce the idea that we are all the same, with the same desires and love of life and family, regardless of how we look, where we come from, how much money we have, or what type of employment, which is a noble thought and goal. Perhaps, also, as Hitler brainwashed the German people, and the Emperor of Japan ruled the minds of the Japanese, the author used Alzheimers to reinforce the idea that we sometimes cannot have dominion over our own thoughts and actions. I believe that many of the glowing reviews were given because of its progressive message in this current political climate.

 

About omasvoice

Who am I? I am you. I am everyone out there who loves to read and discuss and voice an opinion!
This entry was posted in Book Reviews, Books for Adults, Fiction. Bookmark the permalink.

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