Book Review: The Last Year of the War by Susan Meissner

2019, 386 pages

The last year of the war  is a total diversion from the current times.  Set in the year before the end of WWII, the book draws upon the tensions present in the United States that led to the internment of individuals of both Asian and German descent and their American children in “camps.” This is the story of two of those families, one Japanese, and one German.  Elise Sontag was a natural American citizen being raised in Iowa by her German immigrant parents, The little town didn’t protect her from all of the normal angst and uncertainty of a typical rural teenager, but war was not something she worried about every day. Yes, there was a war going on, but the bucolic Iowa farm Elise was growing up on seemed to be far away from the reach of the vagaries of  destruction and death being experienced on the other side of the world. One day all of that changed in short order. Her father was accused of being a Nazi sympathizer, and he was arrested and taken away from Elise, her mother, and her brother, Tom, leaving them without the support necessary to keep them in their home. No matter that her parents had taken America into their hearts and minds as the country they were loyal to, no matter that their children were born and raised in the United States.  The country they had grown to love betrayed them, they were treated as outcasts in the only town the children knew.

 Just when Elise was unsure that her fragile mother could bear the separation much longer, the family had a reunification plan.  Sent to Crystal City, Texas to live with her father, Elise and her brother join her mother for the long and dismal train ride to the camp.  Although I had never heard about the German-Americans being sent to the camps along with Japanese families,I was quickly absorbed by the story of this family being forced to stay somewhere completely foreign to them, the unrelenting heat being the first hint that they were no longer in Iowa. The camp was set up with very basic necessities of living, including cheap furniture and no walls between the parents and children’s sleeping quarters.  The author does a wonderful job of describing what camp life was like, both positive and negative. One of the positives was that the children were able to attend school, and it is at school that Elise becomes acquainted with a Japanese girl from California, Mariko Inhoue. The Sontag and Inhoue families become more familiar with each other, however the friendship between the two girls, immediate and lasting, becomes the focus of Elise’s time at the camp.  This book seemed almost like a love story, the kismet between the girls is so strong, and by the time the book was over, I knew this was exactly what it was. The love the two girls had for each other was deep and strong, the connection of soul mates meant to be in one another’s lives, not in a filial way, but in a deep and abiding friendship. Also like a love story, the girls make plans for the future which does not go exactly the way they plan. After only a few letters from Mariko over several years, Elise has to take stock of her life and make adult decisions at a very young age.

 The themes of paranoia, prejudice, and destiny are woven into the book without the words ever being written.  The reader is transported to different settings that make perfect sense within the context of war and the space of having no control over events that shape and define the lives of the two families.  It was heartbreaking to me that the patriarchs of the two families developed very different approaches to both their confinement, and eventual expulsion from the country they chose to call home. Their decisions end up by being the very same despite their differences.  The theme of “Home,” and what home comes to mean to Elise is at the very core of this story, a love story, a story about the heart and the home, which, in the end, may very well be the same thing.

I proudly give this novel 4 / 4 Stars!

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