World War II is a major interest of mine. With the border situation terms like “Internment” or “Concentration Camp,” “Civil Liberties,” are being tossed around a lot so this sounded very interesting.
Elise and her family are a normal family with German roots living in very German Davenport, Iowa, in 1943. A neighbor boy starts it all by asking her chemist father if he knew how to make a bomb. Of course a chemist knows how to make a bomb, but in the midst of a war with Germany a chemist who can make a bomb, who has a copy of Mein Kampf, who has family still in Germany a has a case full of German military medals–well, the F.B.I. found that intriguing.
Very soon Elise and her family became some of the few Germans taken into custody and sent to an internment camp. Never mind that most of Davenport had family in Germany with relatives, possibly even siblings, serving in the Nazi Army. They weren’t chemists with a copy of Hitler’s book. The F.B.I. didn’t care about the backstory. Elise’s parents had applied to be U.S. Citizens, but they’d been here 20 years and had only just done so. More suspicion.
At the Camp, Elise makes a rare Japanese friend, Mariko. In the Texas camp, Japanese befriended Japanese and Germans German. Only Elise and Mariko, like most of the camp’s children, were American citizens, interned along with their parents–some of whom had become Americans. The two girls develop a closeness that sustains them until the worst thing imaginable happens–Elise’s family was repatriated in January 1945 to Stuttgart.
I found the story very interesting and well done until the end of the war–I even found myself coming up with errands to keep listening in the car! I listened while doing housework–it WAS compelling. The family’s difficulties were seen thru Elise’s eyes–not the parents so the trials of being arrested and interred were seen from a pre-teen and teen’s eyes. The friendship between the girls was very normal and sweet, their reactions to their sitiation were typical of any kids their age.
I did find it odd that Elise, a teenager, barely has more than a token tantrum over being forced “home” to Germany. To me, that wasn’t realistic. In fact, it was close to Pollyanna. Elise doesn’t speak German, is leaving her best friend, her school and her country. Nor does she really go off when she finds out her father had to agree to repatriation for the family to be together in the camp. She and her mother and siblings could have remained free, though she does see clearly that her mother wasn’t the type to cope on her own.
Aside from that and wondering how a bakery in 1945 Germany had gasoline to spare to use their delivery truck, how the family got so much food, and how they kept her little brother from becoming an ardent Hitler Youth (he was the perfect age for indoctrination), I did wonder how her father could have been so isolated from the news of conditions in Germany. Maybe I missed it being said in the story that they were not allowed news in the Camp? Minor detail. Descending into “hell” wasn’t far from the truth.
The big thing was the after-war story. It just didn’t work. I felt I was reading an entirely new book. Grandma loved them all so much she ditched them to live with a niece–odd,. Sure, Elise took a tried and true way out by marrying a G.I., but she didn’t have to. She was an American citizen. I felt that Ralph was put in to check some boxes to tie the story to today’s renewed interest in socialism–and hopefully as a bit of warning about that. He wasn’t “real” to me at all. Elise stopped being “real” and became a brainless twit–settling for being the unpaid nanny (“Elsie” seemed very symbolic of this) instead of pursuing an education and a life the way Ralph intended.
How interesting that at the time in German history when we had to enact the Marshall Plan, her parents sent HER a birthday gift, but she never sent them money or gifts? Really?? Considering where she was living this seems cold. Just plain cold. I liked Hugh, but why did Elise need a “savior”? She had all of Ralph’s trust fund! Very odd ending–like the author had this other story in the drawer, couldn’t find a conclusion to the very interesting repatriation story and tacked this mess on to meet a deadline. That’s overly harsh, but the ending just didn’t work for me.
Overall, I found her obsession with Mariko–a friend for only a year or so–tedious and too childish. Therapy seemed like it should have come into the picture years before on this but their friendship ended on the right note–that was in the modern day part of the story. I thought Mariko’s approach to their relationship was more honest.
I DID find it interesting that Elise named her Alzheimer’s “Agnes” and used good coping strategies to keep being as independent as possible. But why had Elise, who had coped so ably in Germany–even fending off a pair of would-be rapists, become such a ninny on her return to America? As I said, the ending just didn’t work for me.
Note: It was very interesting to learn that Japanese from Peru and a few other Central/South American nations were intered in the U.S. as well. I’d never heard of that.
The ending took this down a lot.
The Last Year of the War: A Novel by Susan Meissner
For a nonfiction look at another family awaiting repatriation see:
Journey Interrupted: A Family Without a Country in a World at War by Hildegarde Mahoney. My review is here.
For a nonfiction look at life in immediate post-war Germany, see:
After the Reich: The Brutal History of the Allied Occupation by Giles MacDonough, my review is here.