From the acclaimed author of Secrets of a Charmed Life and As Bright as Heaven comes a novel about a German American teenager whose life changes forever when her immigrant family is sent to an internment camp during World War II.
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.
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.
|Publisher:||Gale, A Cengage Company|
|Edition description:||Large Print|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x (d)|
About the Author
Susan Meissner is a former managing editor of a weekly newspaper and an award-winning columnist. She is the award-winning author of A Fall of Marigolds, Secrets of a Charmed Life, Stars over Sunset Boulevard, A Bridge Across the Ocean, and As Bright as Heaven, among other novels.
Read an Excerpt
***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?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
The Last Year of the War is another World War II book, but from a different viewpoint. The story begins in Los Angeles, in 2010, as Elise, the main character, is preparing to travel to San Francisco seeking her friend Mariko, whom she met in the 1940s. Elise is beginning to experience symptoms of Alzheimer's disease. Throughout the book, the story jumps between 2010 and Elise's earlier life, beginning in 1943. Elise was born in the United States. Her parents immigrated from Germany, but hadn't yet applied for US citizenship. Elise's father was arrested and accused of being a German spy. Both Mariko's family and Elise's family were interred in the same camp, as enemies of the the United States. This was an enjoyable read and even though it is fiction, it seems to be historically accurate. I learned some facts that I hadn't previously known. I had heard of Crystal City as an internment camp, but was unaware it was located in Texas. I knew many people of Japanese descent were sent to camps during WWII, but wasn't aware that many of German descent were also interred. Nor was I aware that numerous prisoners in US camps were traded for US citizens imprisoned in Europe by repatriating them to their former countries, regardless of whether or not they were US citizens. I recommend this book, especially if you enjoy historical fiction.
Wonderful story about real history and vivid characters. Her novels nevet fail to entertain.
I love historical novels. I love Susan Meissner’s books. And I love WW II novels. Yet this one fell a little flat to me. Was it about internment camps? Was it about Elise and Mariko’s friendship? The war in Europe? Elise’s marriages? It’s hard to say. I think the problem was the story was all over the place. Focusing on one or a few of the story lines would have made it more impactful. Despite some flaws, there are some really powerful takeaways, particularly the treatment of German and Japanese aliens and citizens in internment camps, and the atrocities in Germany during the war. Elise’s marriage to Ralph is too contrived, and her second marriage deserved more attention. Worth reading, although it drags in spots.
Two girls who meet at an Internment camp as young teens become fast and deep friends. Both are American, but the country decided that their fathers were plotting to do harm. They were both sent back to the countries where their parents originally came from. It’s a very sad thing to happen to someone who loves this country so deeply. Who only wanted a better life for their family and through no fault of their own they are sent away. Elise and Mariko were born in the US. Families sent to internment camps and as different as night and day. Elise was a German American born in Iowa. Mariko was a Japanese American born in California. They lost touch with each other for many years but neither forgot the other. As they go through their lives they often think about the other and wonder how she is or what she would think about what they are doing. Elise found love in a family of elite in California. Mariko had an arranged marriage in Japan. This book will touch your heart in many ways. Some kindly and some sad. War is such an ugly thing. So many people are hurt in so many ways. It breaks my heart that these young girls had to go through this. That people in our world had to go through this kind of thing. Trusting is hard during wartime’s I’m sure. But to drag a person out of their home after they have been here for so long seems cruel. At least to me it does. This book touched on many subjects that happen during a war. Sometimes they found things to laugh about and celebrate and at other times they were terrified of being killed in an air raid. My heart broke for Elise. She went through a lot for a young girl but she did find love and security eventually. As did Mariko. This book will touch your heart in ways that may surprise you. It sure did mine. I laughed and cried. Celebrated the good times and mourned the bad. The characters were ones you will take to your heart. I didn’t find any that I didn’t like, except maybe a couple of French soldiers up to no good. The Dove family was a wonderful fit for Elise and I like them all. This book was told from two different timelines and from Elise’s voice. Very well written. It makes you feel like you are there with her through it all. The fears, the laughter, the sorrow, the love. All of it. A huge 5 stars. Thank you to NetGalley and Berkley publishers for an ARC in exchange for my complete and honest review.
Every story I read by this author is amazing. This story touched my heart and brought me to tears at times. I learned information about internment camps in Texas and so much more. Susan Meissner has a way of bringing a story to life and making the reader feel close to the characters. A beautiful, heartwarming and heartbreaking story. Bring the tissues.
Couldnt put it down
An American girl comes of age in WW2 Germany I received a free copy of this book from Berkley. This was a book that I couldn't put down! I've read other novels about the experience of Japanese Americans in internment camps, but never about a German family in the camps being repatriated. Though the synopsis focuses on the friendship of Elise and Mariko, this is really Elise's coming of age during the turbulent war years. And her parent's circumstances as Germans who have never bothered to become citizens, allowed for an interesting and unique narrative. I cant imagine how difficult it would be as a child or teenager to go from having a comfortable life in America to finding yourself suddenly placed in a war zone with little food, clothing, or money, and unable to speak the language. I flew through this book, because I found Elise's circumstances so interesting. I don't believe I've ever read a book that considered how the arrival of Allied troops at the end of the war affected the German people. This was my 3rd Susan Meissner book and I easily count her as a favorite author. I appreciate her great storytelling and I can recommend her books with out worry of offending other's sensibilities.
Elise Sontag, the American-born daughter of German immigrants, has been raised in Iowa. She is peripherally aware of the war, but doesn’t give it much thought until her father is arrested on suspicion (based on circumstantial evidence) that he’s a Nazi sympathizer. Although he’s innocent, the country is looking for people to blame for the tragedy of Pearl Harbor and the U.S.’s entry into the war. So, the family is sent to an internment camp in Texas, where, separated from everything that’s familiar and living under armed guard, Elise begins to lose her identity as an American. When she meets fellow internee Mariko Inoue, a Japanese-American teen from Los Angeles, she finally has a friend who she can compare stories with and plan a future together in New York City when they both turn 18. Unfortunately, neither anticipates that their families will be repatriated to their parents’ native countries, leaving behind everything they know and facing great danger as the Allies advance and the war winds down. Will they survive the war and, if so, will they ever make it back home? Unlike Susan Meissner’s three other 5* books I’ve read (As Bright as Heaven, Secrets of a Charmed Life, and A Fall of Marigolds), this one was a disappointment. The premise was intriguing, but the execution was too much narrative and too little dialogue. It read more like a history book than historical fiction and, as such, characters weren’t well-developed and the emotions felt muted. It is a first-person narrative from Elise’s point of view as an old woman with worsening Alzheimer’s, so the focus is on herself with very little of Mariko’s story since she was unaware of what happened to her friend after the war. Meissner clearly did her research and, for those not familiar with the history, it is interesting to learn of the fate of German Americans during WWII and the depiction of life and death in Germany near the end of the war. It is also surprising to learn that prejudice amongst internees was just as fierce as it was outside the barbed wire fences. Unfortunately, the descriptive narrative bogged down the story and, without Mariko’s backstory, the brief reunion of the two friends after many decades didn’t make much sense or pack the emotional wallop one would expect. Overall, not a bad story, but not on a par with her other novels. I received a complimentary ARC of this book from Berkley Publishing Group through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. Opinions expressed are completely my own.
I always enjoy Susan Meissner’s take on historical drama, where kind-hearted characters help each other overcome life’s tragedies and fight for hope. I’ve read much about the Crystal City interment camp (Train to Crystal City & other books & articles) and found this story to be well-researched. Definetely a worthwhile read for historical fiction lovers!
I am a huge fan of Susan Meissner and this novel just solidifies my love for her writing. Elise is a character that you fall in love with and your heart hurts for her. All that she went through, you feel it while reading the story. Love, hate, war, friendship and so much more create this story. The combination of past and present keep you involved with the character of Elise. I can’t say enough positive things about this novel. . Thank you Susan Meissner once again for being the Queen of Historical Fiction.
I am so disappointed in this book. It's skates the surface emotionally of what it must have been like to live in an American internment camp and forced to repatriate to Germany in the final year of the war. I wanted to care about what was happening to Elsie and Mariko, but the story is just a recitation of what happened with no emotional connection to the events.
A friendship made in an internment camp during WWII that lasted only eighteen months, but bonds and memories that lasted a lifetime. Elise and Mariko met during WWII while attending school in an internment camp for Japanese and German Americans. We follow both girls through their eighteen months in the camp as well as after even though the friends never saw each other again until they were older adults. They tried to connect with each other, but they never were able to. At this time in their lives, Elise was suffering from dementia, and she found out Mariko was dying from stage four breast cancer. Even though Elise had trouble remembering things, she remembered enough to find Mariko, to get on a plane, and to find her before they both were no longer alive. THE LAST YEAR OF THE WAR is a marvelous history lesson and a testament to enduring friendship and learning lessons and making decisions. The subject matter wasn't light, but it was wonderful learning more about this time in history. I actually wasn't aware of all that happened. It is very obvious that Ms. Meissner did extensive research and perfectly fit the facts into her book. If you enjoy historical fiction and Ms. Meissner's books, you will want to make room on your bookshelf for THE LAST YEAR OF THE WAR. As all of her books, the beautiful flow of Ms. Meissner's writing and her attention to detail make the book a treat to read. 5/5 This book was given to me as an ARC by the publisher via NetGalley in return for an honest review.
Elise Sontag, born in Davenport Iowa, is the daughter of German immigrants. In 1943, she is a fledgling teenager when her world is turned upside down as her father, under suspicion of being a Nazi sympathizer is arrested and taken away. With her father’s assets frozen and her mother unable to provide stability for herself and her two children, they are forced out of their home, and months later sent to an internment camp in Crystal City Texas, where they are reunited with Elise’s father. While there, Elise meets and is befriended by Mariko Inoue, a daughter of Japanese immigrants whose family is also detained at the facility. Together they spend the remainder of 1943 and all of 1944 in each other’s company, attending school at the camp, suffering the heat and hardships of their confinement, co-writing the story of Calista, a character created by Mariko, and dreaming about a future they will begin together in New York City, where Mariko will become a theater critic or reporter, and Elise will discover who she is meant to become. In early 1945 the two are separated permanently when Elise’s family is repatriated to Pforzheim Germany. Through the years that follow, Elise experiences the terror and devastation of living in a war zone. She has limited correspondence with Mariko and eventually their letters to each other end. Although Elise’s girlish dreams of the adventure she would have with Mariko in New York City die, her friend’s inspiration that she discover who she is lead her to take advantage of a window of opportunity to leave Germany and return to the United States, where she finds her future. This book successfully imparts the value of family, though all of the families in the novel have serious flaws. Elise’s parents fail to see the impact their choices will make on their children’s lives, Mariko’s parents attempt to control their children, which drives them away, and the Doves exist in shallow naivety. In spite of this, it is the love these family members have for each other that propel them forward. Although I thought this was a wonderful read, I do have a few criticisms to share. I’ll start with the title, The Last Year of the War, which would be 1945. I’m confused about why she chose this phrase when the premise of the novel is the strength of the friendship Elise built with Mariko during the years 1943-1944. I would like to have seen the depth of their bond further developed in the story by revealing more of their interaction while in Crystal City. This would have given more warmth and richness to the story, and also given credence to Elise traveling to see her after having been separated for so many years. Also, I don’t understand why Elise would knowingly fail to tell Pamela and Teddy about her travel plans and insist on making a solo journey to see her friend given her current difficulties. As the daughter of an aging mother who doesn’t think as clearly as she once did, I found this particularly troubling. I was saddened that Mariko apparently never pursued her dream of writing to any extent when it was a gift that was given to her. I disliked the notion that Elise reconnects with Mariko at the last possible moment. I suppose one could assume that Mariko was waiting for her to come before she surrenders herself to death, but still that seems a bit too contrived. On the plus side, Elise is wonderful character, who learns to endure and thrive. I loved that Elise Dove devoted her adult life to projects to
Writing: 4 Characters: 4.5 Plot: 4 An historical novel that plunges you right into the WWII period through the eyes of Elsie Sontag — a ten-year old Iowan girl whose life is utterly upended when her father is unjustly arrested as an enemy alien under Executive Order 9066. We follow her along a tortuous path from Iowa to an internment camp in Texas to an unwilling repatriation to Germany in the last year of the war (she doesn’t even speak German). Each step provides a slap-in-the-face kind of opportunity to learn how labels change the way we perceive and treat others. The book opens when Elise is 81. She is coming to terms with an Alzheimers diagnosis and more than anything wants to find Mariko — the friend she made in the internment camp many years prior. As an aside, I fell in love with this book because of the way Elise anthropomorphizes her disease: “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 Agnes 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.” Each of the four parts of the book starts with a scene from elderly Elise’s life as she gets closer to finding Mariko. The rest of the book details her journey: Davenport, Iowa after her father’s arrest (part 1), the largely Japanese internment camp (part 2), Germany during the last year of the war (part 3), and finally, her path to and life in California (part 4). It’s an utterly gripping story — very difficult to put down. Elise’s voice is real and thoroughly human as she struggles to find her place in the world and understand why people behave the way they do. She struggles with finding a place she can call home. The narrative clearly articulates how war affects everyday people who want no part in it and yet are given little choice. I found the historic details to be largely accurate (although I did wonder about a few small details). Surprising plot twists! I believe this would be great for both adults and young adults.
The unforgettable, shocking story of two young American girls and how their lives and the lives of their families are affected by World War II. The Last Year of the War tells the story of internment camps in the USA. A very eye-opening gripping story of friendship, good and evil and love and loss. One of my picks for the best books of 2018. Highly recommend to all interested in historical fiction and especially American history.
I received The Last Year of the War as a Goodreads Giveaway - Thank you, Susan Meissner, Berkley Press, and Goodreads for sharing your hard work with me. The Last year of the War is an excellent novel, told in the first person of Elise Sontag Dove and set in two time frames - following her diagnosis of Alzeheimers in 2010, which is sandwiched around and through the events of her very convoluted and confusing life from 1943 through VE day and beyond. As an American-born child of German immigrants who had been settled in Iowa for 20 years, Elise at the age of 14 faces separation from her father, an imprisoned chemist deemed to be a threat to America through no fault of his own, with the care and emotional support of her younger brother Max and emotionally frail mother falling mostly on her young shoulders. The following year the family is reunited - by agreeing to family internment in an armed camp in lower Texas, where along with Japanese and South American families the Sontag's spend many months before they are repatriated basically against their will back to a Germany quickly losing the war. Elise can handle almost anything - she is a strong girl - but separation from her best friend Mariko is perhaps the hardest thing she must face. If she can just hang in there until she is 18, she can meet Mariko in NYC where they have plans for their adult life. But Mariko has been repatriated back to Japan. Will they both survive this war to make that reunion? Lots of life lessons in this novel, but hidden very well in the excellent prose. The protagonists are fully graced and wholesome, and the tale lies true to facts in the makeup of the war in Germany's last embattled year. We don't often see things from that side of the picture. This is a book I am pleased to refer to family and friends.
An unexpectedly beautiful historical fiction novel set mainly during the final years of World War II and that focuses a spotlight on a more shameful and less talked about piece of United States history from the perspective of a teenage girl who was born in the US to German immigrant parents. When they are sent to an internment camp in Texas, Elise struggles to find her place as a typical American at the internment camp that is home to not only German detainees, but also a large contingent of Japanese detainees. When Elise meets Mariko, a Japanese-American teen, she finds someone who is navigating the same issues and they are instantly inseparable until both families are repatriated. Elise and Mariko had dreams and plans, and being separated wasn’t going to change them. Elise is determined to make it through the horrors of war-torn Germany and return to the country of her birth and find her best friend. This was an extremely well-researched novel, and I enjoyed how the author took the reader on Elise’s journey. The details, descriptions, and emotions were, I think, even more effective as experienced from Elise’s point of view. A teenager already has so many issues while searching for their identity; I can’t imagine dealing with the additional ones Elise faced with the war and her family’s ethnicity and the path they were forced to take. This was my first time reading a novel by Susan Meissner. I enjoyed the story, her writing style, and the way she developed her characters in the story. It was also interesting to learn more about parts of history that aren’t as well-known. If you enjoy historical fiction, I definitely recommend picking up this novel. #TallPoppyWriters #BloomReads #TheLastYearoftheWar
I love how this historical fiction book explored the topic of internment camps in World War 2 as it's something you don't see very often in the genre. To be quite honest it's basically a "let's just pretend it didn't happen" type subject here in the United States. I grew up in the 80s and 90s and I don't ever remember talking about it in school. So I'm glad this author decided this was a story worth telling. It's 1943 and fourteen year old Elise Sontag is living in Iowa with her parents and brother. Even though her German born father has been a legal resident in the United States for two decades, he is still arrested on suspicion of being a Nazi sympathizer. The family is sent to live at an internment camp in Texas where Elise soon meets Mariko Inoue, a Japanese teen who has also been sent to live at the camp along with her family. The two strike up a friendship but as a brutal war rages on, things will never be the same. When I first started reading the book I thought the girls' friendship would be the main focus. While it was a key part of the story, for me the real strength of the book was Elise and her life story. She brought an interesting perspective as someone who has lived her whole life as an American and yet she and her family were treated like the enemy and eventually sent to live in Germany. When the story moved to Germany it brought with it even more tension as you knew from history the war was coming to a close but yet was still bringing destruction. I found this to be a really compelling historical fiction read. It's one of those good ones in which it holds your interest but you also learn a thing or two. The only criticism I have is I expected to feel something more when reading. I thought there was so much buildup with the friendship between the two girls and by the time the story caught up to the present day, it just felt lackluster and almost rushed. In general, while I certainly had enough interest in Elise to want to keep reading, I just never felt a real emotional connection to her. I might be in the minority with that opinion though. Thank you to First to Read for the opportunity to read an advance digital copy! I was under no obligation to post a review and all views expressed are my honest opinion.
I am a WWII fan. I love the era, I love the heroes, and I love learning about life in the USA during the way. With The Last Year of the War I learn about the internment camps and then I got the bonus of learning about life in Germany as a US citizen while the war was still going on. Elise Sontag is a wonderful character. Even as a child she had such great insight into what was going on in the world. She saw more than she should have, lived a tougher life that she deserved, and still managed to thrive in a time when nothing was easy. When her life was uprooted she stayed strong for a mother who was not able to, cared for her brother, and did her best to keep life happy and easy for her family. She quickly made friends with a Japanese-American, Mariko Inoue, which was unique since most children in the internment camp stayed with “their own kinds”. I found it interested how much the girls had in common, how much they enjoyed each other’s company, all while having such a different upbringing. It showed how much a teenage girl has in common with other teenage girls, no matter what their backgrounds are. The Last Year of the War is an amazing historical fiction book. It is the perfect WWII story, with the telling of life in internment camps, life in Germany during the war, and how life after the war was over was still affected by what happened during the war. It is powerful, it is emotional, and it is an incredible journey.
"The last year of the war" follows the life of Elise Sontag and her friendship with Mariko Inoue. During the WWII, Elise and her family are sent to the internment camp in Texas due to her parents' roots in Germany. Then she meets Mariko, an American-Japanese descendant with who she develops a special friendship. This historical fiction is a remarkable and heart wrenching story: not only mainly focused on the friendship between Mariko and Elise, the author also delivers well the tough situation of German and Japanese descendants in United States. Told between current days and flashbacks, I was deeply invested in the journey of Elise being repatriated to Germany and her way coming back to United States. It was the first time that I read this period of time in German's point of view: we read plenty of Nazism, Jewish persecution and concentration camps related to WWII, however, Meissner gives us another perspective by writing the ostracism suffered by Elise and her family in US as well as Germany. I could intensely feel the rejection as a result of the person's heritage. Furthermore, all the war's reality was vividly described. The characters are utterly captivating and well-crafted - to begin with the friendship between the girls which is so precious and unforgettable. This is a bond that will remain in our minds for a long time. In addition, the romance portrayed in this book is realistic and genuine. The ending is completely moving. To sum up, "The last year of the war" is a beautifully written historical fiction! [I received an ARC from the publisher in exchange for an honest review]
I simply loved this book and the characters that Susan Meissner brings to life, by the end of the book they felt like old friends. The historical research is evident but seamlessly woven into a very realistic story. There are broad themes of friendship, love, identity, family loyalty, the damages of war -- all with an important historical backdrop. We meet Elise Sontag when she is an elderly woman and then learn more about her early life as a typical teenager living in Iowa while WWII rages in Europe. Her German father is arrested and sent to an internment camp and the whole family later follows. Elise befriends Mariko – a teenager in the same boat she’s in – Mariko’s parents are Japanese. The girls become fast friends over the long months in the camp, but circumstances force them apart and they struggle to remain in touch. While I had been aware of Japanese internment camps, I didn’t know there were Germans interned as well. Another surprise was that some of these families were sent back to their “home” countries when they had lived in the U.S. for many years. I adored the character of Elise Sontag and cheered for her to overcome the huge obstacles placed in the way of her happiness. I highly recommend this story if you enjoy WWII historical fiction.
The Last Year of the War Susan' Meissner's most recent novel The Last Year of the War is a heart-wrenching story told by the main character Elise Dove who is nearing the end of her life. Her story depicts the little known story of German-Americans who were place in internment camps during World War II. Elise's story is unique as she becomes best friends with a Japanese-American girl who is also in the internment camp. The impeccably researched story tells Elise's life as she leaves the internment camp and then lives the remainder of her life. A twist in this story is that the main character has recently been diagnosed with Alzheimer's and she has given a name to the disease which she describes as a thief stealing her memories. The Last Year of the War stands out among the many novels set during World War II due to the unique vantage point from which the story is told. We often think of the internment camps as focusing solely on Japanese-Americans. Meissner brings another aspect of these camps and the horrendous civil rights abuses of this time period to the forefront. Disclosure of Material Connection: I received the book The Last Year of the War via NetGalley. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.
The Last Year of the War by Susan Meissner is a passionate study on humankind’s ability to endure and hope and dream during times of uncertainty, loss, and deprivation. The entire story is told through the adolescent Elise Sontag, predominantly at the end of WWII and just beyond; however, each of the four parts of the book begin with the older and ailing Elise on a final quest to reawaken a dormant friendship formed over her 18 months in the internment camp during the last year of the war. Both Elise and Mariko were born on US soil to parents from Germany and Japan, respectively. The friendship is instant for these two young girls, but their synced moments are fleeting because in the grotesque reality of internment camps, families were often forced to repatriate to their countries of origin. Nothing is fair, and the only beauty in such an unfair place and time is honest and unconditional friendship. Susan Meissner’s writing is musical in its composition of heartache, hardship, and harrowing experiences throughout the story, especially when Elise is separated from Mariko and sent to war-torn Germany with her family. But these girls naively plan to reunite after the war and live their dreams together in Manhattan. Unfortunately, sometimes choices are made for us, and sometimes we choose to shatter the dream. The Last Year of the War is about identity, family, loyalty, friendship, hopes and dreams, guilt and shame, freedom, and home. All of these merge together to form a story that will break your heart but also cause you to reevaluate your own friendships and family dynamics as well as your paths taken and not taken. There is never enough time in our brief lives, but The Last Year of the War reminds us that the time is now to embrace family, find lost friends, and live our best life, despite cruel wars and regretful choices. An added gem in The Last Year of the War is the story Mariko is writing when she meets Elise at the internment camp. After they are separated, Mariko entrusts Elise to finish the story, but Elise is not the writer of the duo, so she keeps the notebook safe for when they meet again. The fictional Calista is stuck in a tower, and the two girls contemplate on the many ways to set her free. This unfinished fable embodies the entire ambience of Susan Meissner’s touching story. Elise and Mariko’s friendship is stuck in time, waiting for the chance to be set free on the wings of love and understanding, waiting for that moment when the two friends can finish their story together. The tears will flow as you read this lovely story, but those tears are not always sad ones. While war kills, wreaks havoc, and separates, it is the everlasting promise that hope will shine once again amidst the despair and destruction that will move you to tears and push you to embrace your own life, family, and friends.
This heart-wrenching new novel by Susan Meissner tells of the story of two American born teen-age girls, who along with their families, are forced in to Crystal City a WWI internment camp in Texas. Elise Sontag from Davenport, Iowa is the daughter of German nationals, while Mariko Inoue’s parents are from Japan though she was born and raised in Los Angeles. Trying to survive the brutal Texan heat and the harsh realities of being wrenched from the lives and forced into confinement, the two girls form a close bond despite their different backgrounds. Both families are eventually repatriated, Elise to Germany and Mariko to Japan, despite the war still raging around the world. The novel than turns to Elisa’s life in a country she has never known, her return to American with the aid of a GI stationed in Germany and her efforts to build a new life for herself in a country that had turned their back to her. Though she loses touch with Mariko, we find during the chapters that deal with the current day, Elise, now an 81-year-old widow, uses the internet to track her friend down, and finally try to find the closure she has always needed. This was an excellently researched and compelling story. The story of the Germans and Italians sent to the internment camps is a new approach and many may not be aware of the forced repatriation to a Germany still being bombed by the Allies. There are many themes addressed in the beautifully written novel: themes of friendship, family, bravery, identity; as well as a new telling of a low point in American history and the treatment of our fellow human beings. Meissner perfectly blends fact with fiction, creating sympathetic characters and a strong sense of time and place. Whether you are a fan of Meissner other work, an historical fiction fan or a literary fiction fan, please pick this one up and share it! This will be in high demand at libraries and with book clubs.
Last year, I read and thoroughly enjoyed Meissner’s book, As Bright As Heaven, so I had some pretty high hopes for this one! And while I did enjoy this one, it reminded me too much of a book that I read last year by Monica Hesse, The War Outside, which shares the Crystal City setting and a friendship of young detainees from opposite sides of the alien enemy camp. The two authors clearly used a lot of the same research material, as there are several identical incidents that take place in both books. But Hesse’s novel is aimed at the YA audience, while Meissner’s book is targeted for adult readers. The two books differ in perspective as well, with the YA book alternating perspectives of the two girls and Meissner’s being largely from only Elise’s perspective and at a bit of a remove with it opening in 2010 and the distance of perspective as she desperately recalls her life in the aftermath of an Alzheimer’s diagnosis. Born in Davenport, Iowa, Elise’s world is shaken when her German-born father is arrested and eventually the whole family is relocated to the interment camp in Texas. She strikes up an unlikely friendship with Mariko, a Japanese-American girl from Los Angeles. Both girls end up re-patriated – but Elise is taken to Germany in the titular last year of the war. Perhaps because of the more distant perspective, Elise’s life takes on a much more telling than showing feel to it overall and this makes it harder to connect more emotionally to her. Elise’s naivety, despite her tumultuous surrounds can also be frustrating at times. The last section of the novel, detailing her return to America, marriage and entrance into a Hollywood family almost feels like the plot of a different novel altogether. The friendship that is built as the backbone of the book isn’t quite strong enough to prop up this storyline. I really wanted to like this one more, but it was just too predictable to me and the pacing dragged in places. Maybe had I not read and enjoyed The War Outside so much, I would have been more impressed with this one. But, I never felt connected to the characters. I think that WWII has become a tougher backdrop for fiction to feel really fresh, and while I did feel that the section set in Germany was more unique, Elise’s sheltered nature detracted from the book too much for me. Still, I am looking forward to seeing what Meissner will write next!