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The Souvenir: A Daughter Discovers Her Father's War


Louise Steinman's father never talked about his experiences in the Pacific during WWII-like many men of his generation. All she knew was that a whistling kettle unnerved him, that Asian food was banned from the house, and that she was never to cry in front of him.

After her parents' deaths, Steinman discovered a box containing some four hundred letters her father had written to her mother during the war. Among the letters, she found a Japanese flag inscribed with elegant ...

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The Souvenir: A Daughter Discovers Her Father's War

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Louise Steinman's father never talked about his experiences in the Pacific during WWII-like many men of his generation. All she knew was that a whistling kettle unnerved him, that Asian food was banned from the house, and that she was never to cry in front of him.

After her parents' deaths, Steinman discovered a box containing some four hundred letters her father had written to her mother during the war. Among the letters, she found a Japanese flag inscribed with elegant calligraphy. The flag said: "To Yoshio Shimizu given to him in the Great East Asian War to be fought to the end. If you believe in it, you win." Intrigued by her father's letters and compelled to know how this flag came to be in his possession, Steinman sets out on a quest to learn what happened to her father and the men of his Twenty-fifth Infantry Division.

Over the course of her exploration, Steinman decides to return the flag to the family of Yoshio Shimizu, the fallen Japanese soldier. She travels to the snow country of Japan and visits the battlefield in the Philippines where her father's division fought-the place where Yoshio lost his life and his flag. In the end, Steinman discovers a side of her father she never knew, and, astonishingly, she develops a kinship with the surviving family of his enemy.

Weaving together her father's letters with the story of her own personal journey, Steinman presents a powerful view of how war changed one generation and shaped another.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Exceptional . . . a graceful, understated memoir . . . that draws its strength from the complexities it explores.”—The New York Times Book Review“Ms. Steinman skillfully weaves her father’s emotional letters into the present-day story line, sensitively taking readers through Norman Steinman’s transformation from naïve American soldier to hardened combat veteran. . . . The Souvenir underscores the indescribable way war affects not only veterans but also their families and future generations.”—The Dallas Morning News“The book is the story of entwined ‘gifts’ resulting from [a] personal journey—Steinman’s discovery of a side of her father she never expected to share. For many, her account could provide an understanding of how the war changed one generation and shaped the next.” —Library Journal (starred review)“A moving memoir about reconciliation and honor.”—Publisher’s WeeklyThe Souvenir is a powerful testament that, regardless of time and place, the effect of war on the human spirit remains the same. Steinman’s remarkable discovery shows how war separates our common humanity. It is a journey to repair that broken bond, a journey to know the humanity of those we have made enemies.”—Ishmael Beah, author of A Long Way Gone“Partly a detective story, partly a meditation on the legacy of war . . . this is a bold, unusual, and moving book.”—Adam Hochschild, author of King Leopold’s GhostThe Souvenir is an intimate and powerful story of the effects of war.”—James Bradley, author of Flags of Our Father“Luckily for her readers, Ms. Steinman . . . interviewed not only American veterans of the Pacific war, but Japanese veterans as well. In this quest, she discovered more than just her father’s wartime souvenir; she discovered her father’s war and those experiences that shaped the life of her family in the ’50s. . . . The Souvenir is a graceful blend of history, wartime storytelling and investigative reporting that dives deep into the traumatic experiences of war. Military enthusiasts, especially veterans and their families, will find The Souvenir a proactive [and] rewarding read.”—The Jewish Veteran
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781556437014
  • Publisher: North Atlantic Books
  • Publication date: 3/18/2008
  • Pages: 224
  • Product dimensions: 6.05 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.71 (d)

Meet the Author

Louise Steinman's essays and articles have been published in the Los Angeles Times Magazine, the Washington Post, and Salon, among others. She lives with her husband in Los Angeles, where she curates a literary program for the Los Angeles Public Library.
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Read an Excerpt

PART I - Stateside

Chapter One - The Pharmacist

"You're not listening," my father used to say when I tried to slip an opinion in edgewise. In any discussion, his was always the last word.

Norman Steinman was a patriarch. Responsible, overburdened, overbearing, tender in his distant way. My father loved to give advice. Even more, he expected to be asked for advice. A Rexall pharmacist, he believed there was a palliative for any kind of illness or physical distress. Emotional distress was not in his purview. His own, he kept private.

Except for some well-worn anecdotes about bossy sergeants and his camaraderie with the characters Captain Yossarian of Catch-22 and Hawkeye from M

  • A
  • S
  • H, he never talked to his children-or anyone else I knew-about his experiences in the Pacific in World War II. He discussed neither his losses nor his sorrows.

In our permissive household, there were few edicts beyond the obvious, like "Stay away from the stove, it's hot." Perhaps that's why the few my parents insisted upon stood out. There were three. The first: Never cry in front of your father. Why? "It reminds him of the war." The second: Never wear black in your father's presence. Why? "It reminds him of his sister, Ruth, who died when she was fourteen." The third: Don't question these rules. Though debate and questions were encouraged in our rambunctious household, these givens were so absolute, my three siblings and I simply accepted them. Whatever happened to him "over there" in the war was off-limits, like a nuclear test zone.

We were admonished never to provoke my father's anger-infrequent but explosive. We were told it was a function of his fatigue. When he was angry or depressed, a familiar and untouchable bad feeling permeated the house. Usually, he just smoldered, but on those occasions when he blew his top, the household froze in its tracks until he retired to his room and slammed the door with reverberating force.

Our doting Russian grandmother used to sigh and say, "The war changed your father. He never had a temper before the war." I never tried to imagine what Norman Steinman was like before the war changed him, or just how this change might have occurred.

After his big heart attack, when he was fifty, my father's doctor advised him to avoid emotional outbursts of any kind. Yet some were as unavoidable as they were inexplicable. One night my mother served him sauerkraut, and he threw the whole plate against the wall. "Something to do with the war," she mumbled as she cleaned up the mess. The mere smell of "Oriental" food made him nauseous. "Reminds him of the Philippines," my mother whispered. The whistling tea kettle was banned from our kitchen. The hissing sound unnerved him. Again, "something to do with the war."

Were it not for a chance discovery, my father's silence about the war might have accompanied him to his grave. While cleaning out my parents' condo in 1991, after my father and then my mother died, I unearthed a metal ammo box from a storage locker in the underground garage. Inside were hundreds of letters my father wrote home to my mother from the Pacific War. In one of those envelopes was a Japanese flag with handwritten characters inked across its fragile face.

These letters, this flag, propelled me on a circuitous, decade-long journey that challenged me to learn more about my father and the men of his generation who fought in the Pacific. To the question, What was Norman Steinman like before he went to war? I would find some answers. But new mysteries would also reveal themselves.

In the decades after he returned home from the Pacific, my father's attention, like that of so many others of his generation, was focused on building a business, providing for his family. He opened his first pharmacy in 1951. Pinned to the bulletin board over my desk is a black-and-white snapshot that shows my parents standing behind the counter on opening day.

They were in their late thirties, younger than I am now. My father looks dapper in his white druggist's smock. My mother wears a shirtwaist dress and pearls. They had followed his parents west from New York City after he was demobbed from the army in 1946. They were both eager to raise their children in the bright California light. Wanting a fresh start, my father attended the University of Southern California School of Pharmacy courtesy of the GI bill. My mother ran the house until the youngest of her four was junior high age, and then she embarked on a twenty-year career as a Head Start teacher.

Small and stalwart, my parents both smile into the camera. A banner behind them-open sunday 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.-testifies to my father's impossibly long hours. In the early years of establishing his business, he worked twelve hours a day, seven days a week. Most nights, he came home and went straight to bed, waking an hour later to eat supper alone. Displays of Ace combs and Gillette razors, Crest toothpaste, laxatives, and a zany pair of giant cardboard spectacles with the phrase "Look to Us!" surround the beaming couple.

In the fifties, Edwards Rexall Pharmacy, my father's store on Sepulveda Boulevard in Culver City, was the hub of our family's well-being and a regular hangout for the neighborhood. (The business came with the name Edwards but we never found out who he was.) The regulars parked themselves in the chrome armchairs by the back counter, airing and comparing their malaise. Those without prescriptions consulted with "Doc" Steinman. He recommended tranquilizers for the nervous rabbi, Kaopectate for the wife of the high school principal, Vi-Daylin to pep up Mr. Alfano from the Villa Italian restaurant next door. A "cousins club"-one large extended family including new arrivals from Kiev and Buenos Aires-received discounts on aspirin, cosmetics, antibiotics.

My siblings and I all worked in the store at one time or another. My after-school job was counting pills from large brown bottles into smaller dark bottles in the back room. Kenny, my younger brother, delivered prescriptions in the red Corvair, dreading the nursing homes where skinny arms reached out to touch him. My older brother, Larry, often worked the counter. "When men wanted to buy condoms, they used signals," he recalls. "Two fingers on the counter, like legs apart." My sister, Ruth, wrapped boxes of Kotex sanitary napkins in plain brown paper before arranging them on the shelves. Reticence and modesty were the era's reigning virtues.

At least once a week we drove over to my grandparents' apartment building, twenty minutes by car. On the way, I always marveled at the giant painted "sky" movie backdrop on the MGM lot. As wide as a football field, this "sky within the sky" could be daylight blue, twilight gray, sometimes inky black. Culver City was the "Heart of Screenland," and illusion was the hometown product. Sniffling movie stars dispatched limos to my father's pharmacy. He loved to tell us how he'd advised Woody Allen to take Chlor-Trimeton. ("He was all stuffed up, a terrible cold. A real gentleman.")

Aside from nitro pills for his heart, my father seldom took as much as an aspirin himself. Nevertheless, he believed in drugs for everyone else. He dispensed Preludin to Ruth for her diets, Benadryl to his wife for hay fever, and Ritalin to me when I needed to pull an all-nighter to study for European history finals. After supper, while I watched Mickey Mouse Club, he ordered from the McKesson Company, chanting those magical names into the phone: "One only Phenobarb, two only Doriden, four only Librium, one dozen Penbritin, four ounces paregoric."

The man had an uncanny ability to reduce any situation to its pharmaceutical implications. In 1988, he surveyed my proposed wedding site in Topanga Canyon, north of L.A., noted the blooming chaparral, and soberly proclaimed, "Everyone will need Seldane."

If you felt sick, you were expected to "take something." If you refused to help yourself, he'd cross his arms, sigh, wait out an effective pause, and grumble those dreaded words: "Then suffer." It always worked. If you refused to take something he recommended, you were then beyond the realm of his protection, the safe haven that only Western medicine and a strong rational father could provide.

By the mid-fifties, my parents owned their own home, a boxy stucco three-bedroom house at 4045 Harter Avenue, a nearly treeless Culver City street lined with similar postwar single- family houses. An eggplant-purple Oldsmobile sedan was parked in the driveway. The centerpiece of the all-concrete backyard was the small built-in swimming pool where Ruth, who'd contracted polio when she was six, could swim to strengthen her limbs.

Every four years or so, my father replaced the family car with a new model, a badge of membership in the postwar consumer adventure. He always bought American. The night he arrived home from work in the new Olds, or Ford, or Mercury, was as close as our family ever came to a spontaneous holiday. "Can we go for a drive?" we'd all squeal. And Norman, proud as punch, still in his pharmacy smock, would take his brood for a spin, past the Big Doughnut and the Rollerdrome, the Little League field, the Culver Municipal Plunge.

My father worked long hours so that my siblings and I could attend summer camp, so that my brilliant older brother could take special math and science classes, so that my sister had the best in orthopedists, physical therapy, leg braces. His earnings paid as well for the adjunct helpers to our growing household. Mr. Smith, the pool man, a tall, lanky redhead from Oklahoma, who parked his battered pickup once a week in front of our house, unlatched the gate to the pool yard, and with his long-poled nets expertly scooped dead bugs from the turquoise-hued water. Bessie Greggs, a wry, wisecracking black woman who made the world's best BLTs, came three times a week to help with the housekeeping. A nervous Israeli named Raul tutored my brother in Hebrew. Once a week a handsome Nisei man-nicknamed Porky-mowed the modest lawn and clipped the boxwood hedges. My father respected Japanese Americans, who had served as interrogators with his division in the Pacific.

Porky brought vegetable seeds, and together we'd plant rows of carrots. He showed me how to transplant begonias, aerate lilies. I would kneel beside him and crumble the soil with my hands. He wore a battered khaki porkpie hat that shielded the deep wrinkles in his sunburned brow. My mother told me Porky's family had been in a camp during the war. The camp, with the exotic name Manzanar, was not in Germany, but in California. I was astonished. How could that be?

I'd heard about the concentration camps in Europe. I solemnly observed my parents' choked-up references to nameless relatives "who didn't make it out of Poland or Russia."

One night when I was eight, my mother, who had never forced me to do anything, stormed into the dining room and switched the TV channel from Zorro. I protested. Don Diego was on the verge of rescuing a hapless sethat he had one, was as much a function of a child's self-involvement as it was a function of the blackout on his emotional history.

I had no idea back then why he longed for normalcy, for quietude, for a small town like Culver City. I had no idea what a feat it was to make a home, a life, and a world of possibilities for your children. I did not yet understand why my father believed if there was a cure for what ailed you, why suffer?

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Table of Contents

Chronology . . . xi
Somewhere at Sea . . . 1

Part i: Stateside
The Pharmacist . . . 11
The Flag . . . 19
Into the Deep . . . 41
A Melancholy Slav . . . 49
Speculation . . . 63
The Gift . . . 75
Questions . . . 81

Part ii: Japan
Bombs under Tokyo . . . 93
Shrine of the Peaceful Country . . . 105
Shadows . . . 119
Amazing Grace . . . 129

Part 111: The Philippines
The American Cemetery . . . 143
Journey to Balete Pass . . . 155
Promised Land . . . 181

Part iv: Suibara
Swans in the Morning . . . 189
Flyover . . . 201

Afterword to the New Edition . . . 203
Book Group Questions . . . 207
Selected Bibliography . . . 211

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Reading Group Guide

1. Steinman’s quest began with the discovery of the box of letters and the flag. She also mentions other “souvenirs” in the book–an antique ring and a small silver wine cup. What objects in your daily life contain important memories? Why?

2. Steinman had little knowledge about the Pacific War when she began reading her father’s letters and her quest led her to conduct extensive research. How has “The Souvenir” deepened/changed your understanding of that conflict?

3. What is the difference between reading a history book about WW II in the Pacific and reading a personal story about the war? How does this allow you–the reader–to “enter” into history. Are there veterans in your own family? Have you ever asked them questions about their experiences?

4. Individual countries look at their past conflicts within their own accepted views of history. Steinman explores some of the discrepancies between the Japanese and the U.S. official views about on Hiroshima. Does her examination of the rhetoric from both sides add to your understanding of this pivotal event? What does her friend Shoji Kurokami–a native of Hiroshima-- mean when he says, “”Some people may think bomb was good–and maybe that’s OK. But to me, bomb is bomb.”

5. The Smithsonian Museum’s proposed exhibit to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II was fraught with controversy. Steinman repeats the words of a Smithsonian official, “The veterans wanted the exhibit to stop when the doors to the bomb bay opened. And that’s where the Japanese wanted it to begin.” (p. 135) Why is it important for former combatant nations to look at history together?

6. One of the veterans Steinman interviewed said “your father would be rolling over in his grave” at the idea of Steinman attempting to return the flag. Do you agree?

7. Steinman owns to her naiveté about the Pacific War when she first found her father’s letters. How might her naivete been a hindrance to her quest to return the flag? How might it have been a help?

8. Steinman says that she could understand why the WW II veterans she interviewed were still bitter towards the Japanese. Do you think that reconciliation between groups in conflict must wait for later generations? Why?

9. Steinman says she inherited an antipathy to Filipino cuisine because of her father’s experience in the war. How are prejudices transmitted to the next generation? What prejudices and stereotypes of other cultures might you have inherited through your family’s history?

10. The paradox of the actual souvenir flag is that it means different things to different people. What does it mean to Steinman, her father, the Pacific vets she interviewed? What doe sit mean to Yoshio Shimizu and Shimizu’s family?

11. Some authors write whole novels about places they have never visited, only imagined. Do you think it was necessary for Steinman to journey to Balete Pass in northern Luzon, the Philippines to understand her father’s experience in the war? How does her visit to the actual place inform the book?

12. Why do you think Norman and Anne Steinman preserved Norman’s war letters–even though he wouldn’t discuss the war?

13. Steinman writes that she was shocked by some of the language in her father’s letters. How was that language in keeping with the war propaganda towards the Japanese enemy then current in the United States? How was the enemy demonized by both sides in the Pacific War?

14. The villagers in Suibara welcomed Steinman with both warmth and formality. Why does the entire village turn out to meet her? Do you think such a communal reception would be possible in the United States were the roles reversed and a Japanese daughter returned the souvenir of an American soldier to his family?

15. There are several passages of fiction or what Steinman calls “speculation” in “The Souvenir”–the Passover scene and the vision of Yoshio at the end of the book. What do these sections add to your understanding of Steinman’s quest?

16. Steinman’s own journey to understand her father is intercut with her father’s journey to the Pacific and back. How do these two journeys comment on one another? How might the book have been different if Steinman had not included her father’s letters?

17. “So many unknowables in a life, . . .How a name on a piece of cloth could propel you halfway around the world.” How does her encounter with the Shimizu family affect Steinman? How does it affect the Shimizus?

18. Steinman tries to look at the war from the Japanese POV. The “official” Japanese view is to be found in institutions like Yasukuni Shrine and the Hiroshima Peace Museum. What does she learn from talking to the villagers in Suibara that departs from the official view?

19. While visiting the American cemetery in Manila, Steinman writes that her father wanted to bury his memories. “His desires were irreconcilable: He wanted to never forget and he needed to never remember.” What is gained or lost by forgetting? What is gained or lost by remembering?

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 9, 2007

    A reviewer

    In The Souvenir Louise Steinman show us her childhood full of unexplainable rules like, never cry infront of your father, never wear black and do not question these rules. All related to her fathers past memories of the war. Louise discovers letter and souvenirs from the war making her belive there was more to her father than she knew. In this amazing book she is deturmined to find out her fathers secret past. In this book you see that not everything is what it appears to be. It is also shown that the love and support of otheres is need in a time of war to keep moving on. As a high school student it was amazing to go back in a time of war and see what a solider indures. The Souvenir gave me a better understanding of the war today. There is not one moment in this book that I did not enjoy. Steinman keeps you hooked with her mystery. I think vietrans of this war would like this book because they could really relate to the Steinman family as well as teenages who would like to understand the war and the struggles involved with the men. The Souvenir I recieved from this book was understanding of both sides of the war and gave me more respect for all those involved.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 3, 2004

    This Souvenir Is A Treasure

    The Souvenir, written by Louise Steinman, is a must read for any serious student of World War II. Using the many letters written by her father Private Norman Steinman, who was a member of the Twenty-fifth Division, Ms. Steinman takes us on her journey to ¿discover her father¿s war.¿ Along the way, the author, her father, and the family of a Japanese soldier who may have crossed paths with Private Steinman teach us what the not so obvious and longer lasting costs of the war really were for the men who fought in it, and for their families, and how for some, the war never really ended. The book is part Flags of Our Fathers and part Goodbye, Darkness and I guarantee that the reader will not be disappointed.

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