The Last Year of the War
By Susan Meissner
Author Website: susanmeissner(.)com
Elise Sontag is a typical Iowa fourteen-year-old in 1943–aware of the war but distanced from its reach. Then her father, a legal U.S. resident for nearly two decades, is suddenly arrested on suspicion of being a Nazi sympathizer. The family is sent to an internment camp in Texas, where, behind the armed guards and barbed wire, Elise feels stripped of everything beloved and familiar, including her own identity.
The only thing that makes the camp bearable is meeting fellow internee Mariko Inoue, a Japanese-American teen from Los Angeles, whose friendship empowers Elise to believe the life she knew before the war will again be hers. Together in the desert wilderness, Elise and Mariko hold tight the dream of being young American women with a future beyond the fences. (Goodreads)
Many tragedies occurred during World War II, not the least of which was how Japanese and German immigrants were treated because of fear of people in government. Even if they maintained legal U.S. resident status, if they were not already naturalized, their lives were no longer their own and, by relationship, the lives of their children. Elise Sontag and Mariko Inoue are but two teens of thousands affected by the changes begun across the ocean in Germany or, in the opposite direction, Japan. At times heartbreaking and at times exhilarating, the author gifts us with a historical novel about two best friends and their lives since their first meeting as told by one of the women.
Elise Sontag’s parents, Freda and Otto, immigrated from Germany before she and younger brother Max were born. After many years in the United States, the Sontag’s had not applied for citizenship until the Nazi party rose to power in Europe. When the Alien Registration Act was put into place, they declared their intent to be naturalized. Unknown to the Sontag’s, a file was started on Otto that would be added to during WWII. After an eventful day at school, Elise arrived home to find men searching their home. The FBI was there and took photo albums, family correspondence, his father’s WWI military medals, and Otto, afraid that he might be loyal to the Nazi party. Another day she arrives home to find that Otto was sent to an internment camp near Bismarck, North Dakota and that their assets had been frozen, so they couldn’t even buy food or pay the rent. Eventually, Otto and his family are sent to a family camp in Crystal City, Texas.
Mariko’s parents immigrated from Japan as newlyweds and settled in the Little Tokyo section of Los Angeles. She has a brother and sister, twins, who are three years older than her. The teens met on Elise’s first day at the school. The classrooms are progressively more segregated between German and Japanese as the children grow older. The only seat open in the classroom was next to Mariko, and they did their homework assignment together, becoming fast friends. Mariko is writing a book about a warrior-princess named Calista, who lives in a land called Ankara. The girls are fast friends despite the pressure on them by their respective German or Japanese peers, and Mariko and Elise frequently talk about Calista and how to proceed with the story.
The internment camps sound like prisons with the fencing, razor wire, head counts, and various rules and requirements. Otto will teach chemistry at the German School but will not be allowed chemicals to teach with. Mariko’s father is a beekeeper. The girls’ friendship allows them the only sense of normalcy and teenage dreams they can eke out in their grim surroundings. They make plans for when the war is over, then when they turn 18. Their world would change hundreds of times before WWII ends, however, and the wisdom they gain is beyond what their parents’ American dreams wanted for their children.
Elise comes to life under the talented hand of the author, and I could share her emotions through the ups and downs of her life. There were times I wondered if she would ever find joy, and at least two of the wishes I had for her came true. Elise’s parents are well defined, as is Mariko. Elise’s mother’s fragility contributed to her having to grow up as a young teen, but rather than be a bitter woman, she grew into a strong woman. We hear little about Mariko for many years, since this is primarily Elise’s story to tell.
This novel drew me in from the beginning and held my attention throughout. It was a mixed blessing to learn more about the history of our country during these years. While I understand the concerns of those in power in the U.S., it is hard for me to understand how events escalated that badly. Had the teens’ parents know how their decisions affected them, there are many things they would go back and change, but overall, they did the best they knew how to make better lives for them. This is a unique work of women’s fiction; I highly recommend it for those who appreciate novels about WWII and the resulting lives of women and families.
*OBS would like to thank the publisher for supplying a free copy of this title in exchange for an honest review*