In 1943, Elise Sontag is a typical American teenager from Iowa—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.
But when the Sontag family is exchanged for American prisoners behind enemy lines in Germany, Elise will face head-on the person the war desires to make of her. In that devastating crucible she must discover if she has the will to rise above prejudice and hatred and re-claim her own destiny, or disappear into the image others have cast upon her.
The Last Year of the War tells a little-known story of World War II with great resonance for our own times and challenges the very notion of who we are when who we’ve always been is called into question.
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***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***
Copyright © 2018 Susan Meissner
Los Angeles, 2010
I’ve a thief to thank for finding the one person I need to see before I die.
If Agnes hadn’t slipped her way into my mind to steal from it willy-nilly, I wouldn’t have started to forget things, and Teddy wouldn’t have given me the iPad for my birthday so that I could have my calendar and addresses and photos all in one place, and without the iPad, I wouldn’t have known there is a way to look for someone missing from your life for six decades.
It’s been a very long while, more years than I care to count, since I’ve spoken Mariko’s name aloud to anyone. And yet, from the moment I found out Agnes is not only here to stay but here to take, my childhood friend has been steadily on my mind, having emerged from that quiet corner where the longest-held memories reside. It’s these oldest and dearest of my recollections that presently seem to be the hardest for Agnes to filch, but I know the day is coming when she’ll find every moment I’ve ever had. The thief will uncover those ancient memories—the good ones and the bad—and she will take them, as gently as dusk swallows daylight. Right now, however, my memories of Mariko are still mine.
I’ve been told by my doctor that this Alzheimer’s I’ve got will eventually kill me.
It is so strange to be diagnosed with a fatal disease and not feel sick. What I feel is that I’ve been saddled with a sticky-fingered houseguest who is slowly and sweetly taking everything of mine for her own. I can’t get rid of her, the doctor assured me, and I can’t outwit her. I’ve named my diagnosis after a girl at my junior high school in Davenport—Agnes Finster—who was forever taking things that didn’t belong to her out of lockers. My own Agnes will be the death of me; I know this. But not today.
Today I am sitting at LAX at a Delta gate waiting to board a plane. I have written Mariko’s name—first, last, and married surname—and her daughter’s name in felt-tip on the inside of my left wrist, and Ritz-Carlton, San Francisco on the inside of the right one, just in case I forget why I’m at the airport with a carry-on bag at my feet. Agnes is adept at seizing little moments of my day, and when she does, she takes control of my mouth and then says the most ridiculous things, some of which I can remember when I’m me again and some that I can’t. Yesterday she asked the mailman where the children were. For heaven’s sake. Pamela and Teddy are not children anymore. They are both married. Retired. They have gray hair.
I feel badly that Pamela and Teddy don’t know about this trip I am taking, but I couldn’t tell them. They wouldn’t have allowed me to go. Not alone. Maybe not at all. They don’t know about Mariko, and they don’t know about Agnes, either, but I believe they suspect something is up with me. I have seen it in the way they look at me and more so in the way they look at each other. They are wondering whether it’s time to move me out of my home of sixty-three years, perhaps into one of their homes. Or maybe to a facility of some kind. A nice one, they would say. But still. A facility. They are thinking the iPad that Teddy gave me will reveal whether my recent trouble with remembering routine minutiae and even calling to mind how many grandchildren I have is more than just the simple forgetfulness of an eighty-one-year-old woman. I’m not the only one using the iPad. I think they are using it, too, to gauge my faculties by watching how I use it or by seeing if I remember that I have it at all.
Pamela convinced me to surrender the keys to my car five months ago, after I had trouble finding my way home from the supermarket. Or maybe it was five weeks ago. I can’t recall at the moment. I don’t have the keys; I know that. And my garage is empty. I had to take a cab for that doctor’s appointment where I learned the truth, though Pamela would have taken me. I had a feeling I knew what the doctor would tell me, and I wanted to hear it alone. I wrote my address on the bottom of my shoe to make sure I could tell the cab driver on the return trip where to take me. Agnes delights in dancing away with my address, like a devious child, and then giving it back to me hours later.
“You need to tell your family,” the doctor had said. “You need to tell them right away, Mrs. Dove.”
It’s not that I want to keep my diagnosis from Pamela and Teddy. I love them so very much and they are awfully good to me. It’s just that I know how hard this will be for them. For all of us. Agnes will swallow me whole, inch by inch. Every day a little more. She will become stronger and I will become weaker. It’s already happening. I will forget forever the important things. The things that matter.
God help me, I will forget my old friend Mariko completely. She will fade into a fog of nothingness, and strangely enough, that pains me more than knowing I will forget the names of my grandchildren, and Pamela’s and Teddy’s names, too. More than knowing I’ll forget I was married to the most wonderful man in the world. To know I will lose Mariko is the worst ache of all because she and I had only those eighteen months at the internment camp. That’s all the time we shared before my family was sent to Germany and then hers to Japan. I’ve had a whole lifetime with my beloved husband, children, and grandchildren. And only such a short while with Mariko.
As I sit here on the edge of my life, I know I’m a different person for having known her, even though our time together was brief. I can still hear the echoes of her voice inside me despite what separated us, and what kept us apart for good. I still feel her.
It was this feathery and renewed sensation of Mariko’s presence, and knowing that soon it would be taken from me, that had me stunned after I’d returned home from the doctor’s office. My cleaning lady, Toni, had come into the living room, where I was sitting, her car keys in hand, ready to go home. The house where I had been gifted a million happy moments is beautiful, and spacious. Toni is the fourth housekeeper I’ve had and the youngest. Teddy thinks I hired her despite her pink highlights and the starry stud in her nostril because she came highly recommended. I hired her because of them. Her youthful look makes me feel not quite so old.
So there I was, letting remembrances of Mariko that had been long neglected play themselves out. On my lap was a notebook, weathered by age. It had once been Mariko’s. It had been mine for far longer. I must have looked as astonished as I felt. Toni asked me if I was all right.
“Oh. Yes,” I lied.
“You look like you’ve seen a ghost,” Toni said. “You sure you’re okay?”
I smiled because that is what Mariko’s presence felt like at that moment—a wisp. There, but not there. “I was just thinking about someone I used to know. A long time ago,” I replied.
“Oh, sweetie. Did you just get bad news? Is that why you’re sitting here like this?”
I shook my head. This, again, was somewhat of a lie. Toni was surely wondering if I’d just received word that this old friend of mine had died. I hadn’t. But I had just gotten bad news. “No,” I answered. “I actually don’t know what became of this person. We were childhood friends. That was a long time ago.”
“Ah. And so you were suddenly wondering where he or she is?”
It was that, but it was more than that. Much more. But I nodded.
“Well, have you googled the name?” Toni asked.
“Have I what?”
“You know. Looked him or her up on Google. It’s hard to be completely invisible these days, Miss Elsie.”
“What do you mean? What is a . . . google?”
“You just type the name into Google and see what results you get. Google is that search engine on the Internet. Remember? Where’s your iPad?”
“In the kitchen.”
“Come on. I’ll show you.”
I followed Toni into the kitchen, where there was no iPad, but we went next into the breakfast room, and there it was on the table where I’d eaten a bowl of raisin bran hours earlier. I handed Toni the iPad. I’d written my pass code on a yellow Post-it note that I’d stuck to it. She tapped and swiped and soon there was a screen with the word Google there in happy, colored type.
“What’s the name?” Toni asked.
I suddenly didn’t want to give her Mariko’s name. It seemed too sacred to spill to someone who did not know her or what she had meant to me in another time, another place. And I still had no idea what Toni was attempting to show me, so I thought for a moment and decided on the name of a boy I knew in junior high whom other boys had liked to tease. I had felt sorry for him then, but I hadn’t had one thought about him since.
“Artie? An old boyfriend?” Toni smiled coyly.
“Heavens, no. He was definitely not that.”
Toni laughed. “Okay, so his real name is probably Arthur, right?”
“I just type his name like this, but I put it in quotation marks so that Google doesn’t look at all Arthurs, just Arthur Gibbs, and . . . voilà!”
She handed the iPad back to me. A white screen that looked like a piece of paper stared back at me, with words all over it.
“All of those sentences in blue are links to articles or Web pages or directories that mention an Arthur Gibbs,” she said. “A link is like a . . . a place to go check without having to leave your house. Do you know how old he is?”
“He’d be eighty-one. Like me.”
“Well, then you can eliminate any hit that refers to an Arthur Gibbs younger than that. Like this guy.”
Toni tapped something and then showed me an arrest report for an Arthur K. Gibbs from Boise, Idaho. He had turned forty-two last summer. “That’s not your Artie. See?”
“All of these are hits. But they are less likely to be anything you want the further out you go. Here’s how you go back to the list of hits.”
I watched as she tapped an arrow to go back to the screen with all the blue-lettered titles.
“How many of those . . . hits are there?” I asked, peering at the screen and seeing a number that couldn’t possibly be right. More than twenty thousand.
“Don’t pay any attention to that. Just look at the results up front. The ones at the way back are never the ones you want.” She pointed to the bottom of the screen. “This is just the first page of hits. Down here is the link for the second page and third page and so on. You just tap. It’s like turning pages in a book. Like the other day when I was showing you how to tap through the articles on the Home and Garden Web site. Just like that. Okay?”
“All right.” I reached for a yellow-lined notepad on the table and scribbled Google. Type name. Quotation marks. Hits. Pages in a book.
“Now, locating this gentleman might take a while, so don’t lose heart if it doesn’t happen today,” Toni said. “You might need to try again tomorrow or the next day or the next if you get tired of looking. I’ve got to run but you’ll let me know if you find him, won’t you?”
For a second Agnes was all ready to say, Find who? But I jumped ahead of her, nearly tripping over my own mouth. “Certainly. Thank you, Toni.”
She smiled at me. “You’re one cool grandma, Miss Elsie. You’ve got an iPad and you know how to use it! Next thing you know you’ll be on Facebook, posting pictures of your grandkids.”
I didn’t tell her I already had the Facebook. Teddy had put it on my iPad so that I could see pictures of the family. I didn’t tell her because I very much wanted Toni to go on home so that I could use the Google to look for Mariko before Agnes found a way to make me forget how to do it, or that I even wanted to.
“Thank you, dear,” I told her. “You have a nice rest of the day, now.”
The second she was out the door I was typing Mariko Inoue Hayashi into that slim little space, with quotation marks.
The screen lit up with new blue-lettered titles. The first one took me to a feature article written five years earlier that had appeared in a San Francisco newspaper. The story was about a nisei woman, American-born of Japanese parents, who had finally returned home to the United States after six decades in Tokyo. Born in Los Angeles in 1929, this Mariko Inoue Hayashi had been repatriated with her family to a defeated Japan in September of 1945, after having been interned in Crystal City, Texas, along with thousands of other Japanese, German, and Italian families. At long last she’d come back to America following the death of her husband to live with a daughter in San Francisco.
My breath stilled in my lungs.
The article included a photograph of Mrs. Hayashi standing on a grassy bank with the Golden Gate Bridge in the background. Her hair, a wiry gray, was short and stylish, and her face was wrinkled in all the same places mine was. Her beautiful Asian features nevertheless suggested she had seen much in her seventy-six years. A Japanese woman in her mid-fifties stood next to her. Mrs. Hayashi’s daughter, Rina Hammond.
Below this picture, in an inset, was a black-and-white photo of Mariko Inoue Hayashi and her parents and older brother and sister at the Crystal City Internment Camp, in the late fall of 1944, as they stood in front of their quarters on Meridian Road. There was a blond-haired teen, out of focus and only half-pictured, in the background, leaning on a fence. The blond girl’s head was cocked as though she’d been impatient for the photographer to finish.
I had reached with a shaking hand to touch the blurred image of that teenage girl whose physical features were perfectly Teutonic in every way—fair-haired, with large, light-filled eyes. Angular jaw. Full lips. Pronounced dimples.
I can still remember standing there on the sideline as that picture of Mariko and her family was taken. That same photographer had taken my family’s photo days earlier. She and I hadn’t known the photo was needed for initiating plans to have us all repatriated; Mariko and her family to Japan, me and mine to Germany. Papa and Mommi didn’t break the news to Max and me until later.
My hand traveled to Mariko’s black-and-white face. On the last day we were together, we’d promised that we’d meet up with each other in the States—when the war was over and when we had all picked up our lives again from where we had been plucked out of them. We’d pledged to each other that we’d find a way, and we had renewed that vow after the war ended and we were yet still thousands of miles apart.
As I sat there on the sofa with my fingertips on the smooth surface of the iPad, that old promise between Mariko and me seemed to thrust itself out of my heart to rattle the brittle bones of my rib cage. I shuddered as if I’d been shaken awake from a long dream.
Mariko was in San Francisco. She was alive; I was sure of it. I had not found her now only to discover she had died since this article was written. She was still alive. My soul refused to believe anything different.
I moved my hand away from the screen and read the article again. Mariko’s daughter, Rina, was the guest relations manager of the Ritz-Carlton, a five-star hotel in downtown San Francisco. If I could speak face-to-face with Rina, I knew I could at last speak face-to-face with Mariko again; it was as simple as that. Surely it would be as simple as that. There was something I wanted to thank her for before Agnes overtook me for good. I should have thanked Mariko long ago.
Waves of regret that I hadn’t looked for her before now were already washing over me, but I couldn’t pay them mind. I couldn’t. Nor could I ponder this new thought that she hadn’t looked for me, either, all these years. I had no time for those kinds of musings.
I called a travel agent. Not my travel agent, a travel agent. I knew when Pamela and Teddy saw the note that I planned to leave for them—that I needed to take a quick trip and would be back soon—they would contact Ginnie at the travel agency that the Dove family has used for the past seventy years, before I even was a Dove. Pamela would ask her what arrangements she had made for me, and Ginnie would say she hadn’t made any.
I asked this new agent, whose name and agency I can’t recall at this precise moment, to arrange for me a first-class seat on the first available flight to San Francisco and a room at the downtown Ritz-Carlton for a week, but only after making sure that a certain Mrs. Rina Hammond was still the guest relations manager. I had my arrangements in less than an hour. It’s easy to do such things when you’re the widow of a wealthy man. Not pleasurable, mind you, but easy.
Now, two days later, I am waiting to board the plane.
Anyone else would surely be astounded that I had found Mariko so quickly. The first hit, as Toni would say, if Toni knew. Astounding.
But I hadn’t been that surprised. I’m still not. I had found my old friend so easily because there is only one Mariko Inoue Hayashi in all the world.
Only the one.
There were five things my father wished he had done differently in the years before we were repatriated to Germany. When he told me what these five things were, he and I were sitting at a dinner table—where there had been no dinner—in a tiny apartment in Stuttgart, Germany, on a cold day during the last year of the war. Mommi, Max, and my grandmother had gone to bed. The flat was quiet, and mercifully so were the skies outside. My father’s childhood home was a bombed-out ruin by then. There was no food, the Allies were marching ever east and north toward Berlin, and all Papa’s old friends and acquaintances in his obliterated hometown of nearby Pforzheim were wondering why in the world he had come back.
I hadn’t prior to that moment asked if he had any regrets. Papa and I were just quietly working a jigsaw puzzle that he’d salvaged from the rubble of his mother’s house. A chipped kerosene lamp was burning so low between us that we could hardly make out the pieces. My stomach rumbled, and to my papa, who had always been able to provide for us, I think the sound of my hunger seemed as though it was a question. Is this what you wanted for us, Papa?
That’s when he told me about those five things, although I think he was listing them for himself and not so much for me. First, he told me he wished he’d left his father’s war medals with my grandmother when he returned to Davenport from Opa’s funeral. He almost did leave them with her. Not because he knew Germany would soon be the enemy of the United States. Nobody knew that was going to happen. Not then. It was because my Oma had looked so sad when she’d handed the velvet-lined box to him.
“Your father wanted you to have these,” she’d said, still in her mourning clothes.
Oma had looked like she couldn’t bear to part with the medals, Papa remembered, and so he hadn’t extended his hands to take them. Oma had pushed the black box toward him.
“Take them,” she’d said, her eyes filling with fresh tears. “He wanted them to be yours.”
Papa told me he would’ve said, “But I want you to have them, Mutti,” if he could do it over. The medals meant more to Oma than to him and they always had. They were the emblems of my grandfather’s bravery and loyalty and the proof that he had promised he would come home from the Great War and that he had.
I had seen those medals when Papa brought them home from Germany the same summer Hitler invaded Poland. The ribbons were colorfully striped like long strands of taffy and the medals themselves felt cool and serious in my hand. I saw them only that one time. Papa put the box on his closet shelf, still covered in the chamois cloth that Oma wrapped it in for the voyage to America, and that’s where they had stayed.
Secondly, Papa wished he hadn’t left a copy of Mein Kampf buried in the back of his nightstand, years after he’d read it. He hadn’t even liked the book. It had been recommended to him by a man he used to drink beer and smoke cigars with at the German American club in downtown Davenport. That man had moved away and forgotten to ask for his book back. My father had always meant to look up the fellow and mail the book to him, but it had been a long while and he had forgotten about it. The FBI hadn’t believed the book belonged to someone else when they searched our house and found it.
“What was that book?” I asked as I studied a puzzle piece. I hadn’t yet been made aware that before I was even born Adolf Hitler had written a book. People had stopped discussing it years before and had been discussing the man instead. And that was all people talked about when Hitler’s name came up in conversations that I had overheard: the man and his terrible plan.
“It’s a book I never should have had in our house,” Papa answered. And my empty stomach rumbled again, and he closed his eyes as though his insides had growled in protest, and not mine.
Then Papa told me he wished he’d never told the neighbor’s son that he knew the ingredients needed to make a bomb. All chemists like him did. You learned it in university your first year. That’s how you became a safe chemist who didn’t make terrible mistakes.
When Stevie Winters, who was hands down the most mischievous boy I’ve ever known, and whose father was a policeman, had asked Papa, “Do you know which chemicals explode in a bomb?” my father had said he did, but now he wished he’d lied and said, “No. I don’t.” Stevie Winters would have gone home to terrorize his little sister or cut the fringe off his mother’s sofa pillows or break a window playing ball in the house. He wouldn’t have gone home and told his father that that German man, Mr. Sontag, said he knows how to make a bomb.
Papa told me the fourth thing he wished he’d hadn’t done was tell a certain coworker that he didn’t think he could raise a gun against a fellow German, so he hoped with all his heart that he’d never be asked to. It was true that Papa didn’t think he could put on an American Army uniform and fight against Germany. But he wished he’d hadn’t said it to someone.
“You don’t have to say everything you’re thinking, Elise,” he said.
The coworker hadn’t asked Papa if he could kill a fellow German. The two of them had just been talking about the war in Europe and whether America was going to get involved, and Papa had volunteered that information. The coworker had remembered him saying it. Before Papa was arrested, the FBI had talked to this coworker. They had talked to Stevie Winters and his father. They had talked to everyone we knew.
Lastly, Papa told me he wished he had applied for American citizenship sooner. He and Mommi waited until after Hitler marched into France, and by then petitions for citizenship from a pair of German immigrants who’d been in the United States for nearly two decades were fodder for suspicion, not loyalty.
“Why did you wait so long?” the FBI agents had asked him. “You could have become a citizen years ago. Why did you wait?”
Papa hadn’t wanted to say, Because it didn’t seem that important until now. That would’ve sounded like he didn’t love America much, and the truth was, he did. But he loved Germany, too, and he didn’t want to choose between them. He told me it had been like being a child of divorced parents who had to choose the one he loved most when asked which one he wanted to live with. So Papa had said he didn’t know why he’d waited.
These were the five things Papa had done when we all lived in America that, until the day he died, he wished he’d done differently. These were the five things about my papa the FBI didn’t like. The five things that formed the accusations against him. The five reasons he was interned first at a detention camp in North Dakota and then at Crystal City with hundreds of other German, Japanese, and a handful of Italian nationals and their wives and American-born children. The five reasons we were traded in January of 1945 for American civilians and wounded prisoners of war stuck behind enemy lines in Germany. The five reasons he and I had been sitting in that rented flat no bigger than our quarters had been at Crystal City, doing a jigsaw puzzle in the semidarkness.
I would remember that conversation always. If Papa had left the war medals with Oma, given the man back his book, told wicked Stevie Winters to run along home, said nothing to his coworker about the war in Europe, and applied for U.S. citizenship when he and Mommi first came to the States, my life would have been completely different. It scares me to think how different it would be. Would I even be me? Wouldn’t I be some other person entirely?
I wouldn’t have married who I married, wouldn’t have raised the children I have raised.
And I wouldn’t be seated on an airplane bound for San Francisco at this moment because I would never have known Mariko Inoue. My family and I wouldn’t have been sent to Crystal City. Mariko and I never would have met.
All that I am hinges on those five little things my father had always wished he’d done differently.
I can feel Agnes tugging at these thoughts of mine as the jet climbs the sky. She wants them. Like a child who wants handfuls of candy before supper, she wants them. Agnes wants them because they are so old and threaded so deeply within me. She wants that memory of fifteen-year-old me sitting at a borrowed table, in a broken world, working a puzzle with my father in the last year of the war.
She wants to have my ponderings over who I would be if Papa had done those five things a different way. She wants it all. I turn my gaze to the porthole window and I whisper two words to Agnes that are drowned out by the white noise in the plane’s cabin. Not yet.
I reach inside my carry-on for the fabric-bound notebook that had been Mariko’s, brushing my hand against the iPad, my purse, a package of Fig Newtons, and the latest issue of House Beautiful. The yellowed pages of the ancient notebook contain the half-finished, untitled book Mariko had been writing at Crystal City. It’s the tale of a warrior princess named Calista who lives in a fantasy land called Akari, which Mariko told me is the Japanese word for “light.” In the story, courageous Calista had set out to free her three sisters from an evil sorcerer who had kidnapped them and taken them to his enchanted castle.
Mariko, who had loved writing and imagining worlds that don’t really exist, had started to write this story when her family still lived in Los Angeles, just before Pearl Harbor was bombed, before her world—and mine—was turned upside down. After we became friends at the camp, we’d spent many hours thinking up new scenes to move the story forward. Toward the end of our stay Mariko had gotten stuck and didn’t know how to get unstuck. Calista had already made it past several harrowing obstacles on her journey to save her sisters but was now imprisoned herself in the sorcerer’s highest tower. She’d learned that her sisters, jealous of her beauty, brains, and bravery, had faked their abduction and then paid the sorcerer to capture Calista when she came to save them.
I was no whiz at storytelling, but Mariko allowed me to dream and ponder with her the best way for Calista to defeat the sorcerer, escape the tower, and take her revenge on her cruel sisters. Though I lacked Mariko’s creativity and imagination, she never made me feel stupid for suggesting scenarios that couldn’t possibly work and had no literary merit. Before Mariko could find a way to get Calista out of the tower, though, my family and I were sent to Germany, and then Mariko and hers to Japan. A year would go by before I heard from her again.
We had exchanged only two letters from our separate lands of exile when she wrote her final note and included the notebook, in which no new words had been written. A marriage with the son of a still-wealthy Japanese businessman, Yasuo Hayashi, had been arranged for Mariko—she had just turned seventeen—and she told me she couldn’t write to me anymore. Neither would she be joining me back in the States when we both turned eighteen, as we’d planned. She told me to take the book and please, please get Calista out of the locked tower and finish the story, because she would not be able to.
I had cried to think I would never see or hear from Mariko again, and I knew she had wept writing that last letter to me; I saw the blotches in the ink, the crinkles in the folds, the unmistakable mark salt-laden tears leave on linen paper. I wrote Mariko several letters after that anyway, telling her that no matter where she and I lived, we could continue to write to each other, and that maybe someday her new husband would allow her to come visit me. Or he would allow me to come visit her. But those letters to Mariko came back to me undeliverable. I never heard from her again.
The binding on the notebook is threadbare, despite my having carefully stored it over the decades. It has been sitting at the bottom of a cedar chest in the blue guest room, wrapped in plastic, safe from mildew and silverfish and the breath of time. I never wrote so much as a word inside it, even though Mariko had sent it to me thinking I would finish the story. But I couldn’t. It was not my book to finish. And yet even now I wonder how Calista got out of the tower. How did she defeat her enemy? How did she get justice for what her sisters had done to her? How did she live the rest of her life?
Perhaps this is the real reason why I sense this overwhelming need to see Mariko before I die, before I disappear: so that I can give this book back to her and find out at last how the story ends.
We have reached cruising altitude, and the attendants will be serving us refreshments now. I slip the notebook back inside my bag and zip it shut.
Where are we going? I hear Agnes saying in the back of mind.
Back to the beginning, I tell her.
Reading Group Guide
The Last Year of the War by Susan Meissner
Questions for Discussion
1. The Last Year of the War is a work of historical fiction, but the internment camp at Crystal City was a real place where families just like Elise Sontag’s were detained and then repatriated in prisoner exchanges. How do you feel about what happened during World War II to German Americans like Elise’s family? Was such an action justifiable in a time of war? Why or why not?
2. What do you think it was like for Elise, going from milk shakes at the local diner in Davenport to living off bread crumbs to survive in Stuttgart after the war? What about her character do you think allowed her to cope with those changes?
3. Was Elise’s father right to volunteer for Crystal City, knowing that by doing so he and his family might possibly be repatriated?
4. Elise’s father said the only thing he could do to stand up against the Nazi regime was to make faulty fuses. Was he right? What would you have done?
5. Elise seemed changed by the experience in the alley with the two Frenchmen. How do you think it changed her, and why?
6. Elise, because of her German heritage, struggles in Chapter 22 to understand how the German military could have been so inhumanely cruel to the prisoners in the concentration camps. She says to the reader, “I was beginning to understand that it was a person’s choices that defined his or her identity and not the other way around.” Do you agree that our choices say more about who we are than anything else? How does a person’s nationality figure into his or her identity?
7. What does it mean to you to be a patriot? What do you think it meant to Elise? She tells the reader in Chapter 23, “The land of my childhood mattered to me, maybe because it was where my life began. I felt a part of that land somehow, just as Papa’s heart was tied to the land of his birth. It was the land he loved, not so much the people, because people can change. People can be good and people can be monsters.” Does the land of your childhood matter to you? Why or why not?
8. Has The Last Year of the War prompted you to consider the way in which you see people from other nations?
9. Was Ralph a good friend to Elise? Do you think he had his own reasons for marrying her? Did you like him as a person? Why or why not?
10. If you had been in Elise’s position, would you have married Ralph? Did she make a wise choice or a foolish one?
11. Why do you think Elise wanted to return to America and stay with Hugh’s family, even though they were difficult in some ways? Do you think she felt her own family was broken somehow by their experience? Do you think she needed to be needed?
12. What do you think were the reasons Mariko’s friendship had such an impact on Elise? Can you relate? Did you have a friend like this growing up? How are we shaped by our friendships when we’re young?
13. Do you think Elise would have ended up being a different person if she hadn’t met Mariko? If so, how?
14. Mariko says from her deathbed that because of her, she and Elise were lost to each other. She laments that had she made different choices, she and Elise could have stayed friends. Elise assures Mariko that they did remain friends. Did they? Of Mariko, Elise tells the reader, “She remained in my heart and I in hers, all these years.” What was Elise saying? Do you think it’s possible to retain a friendship when you are parted from that friend?
15. Elise describes her Alzheimer’s as a sticky-fingered houseguest named Agnes who is stealing from her. What is Agnes taking from Elise? How does this predicament tie into the rest of the story?