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.
The Last Year of the War is the moving story of true friendship that lasts a lifetime, despite years of separation. Told through the eyes of Elise, the story opens in 2010 when Elise is in her 80s, suffering from the losses associated with Alzheimers, feeling pieces of herself and her life being stolen away from her. When her housekeeper teaches her to use Google, Elise uses it to look up her friend Mariko, a girl she last saw during the last year of World War II. And having found her, Elise decides to go see her, despite the memory lapses that cause her to repeatedly lose her focus and her purpose for traveling.
From there, we go back to Elise’s adolescence. As the American-born daughter of German immigrants, Elise enjoys her ordinary life in Davenport, Iowa, up until the day her father is arrested as an enemy of the United States:
As I watched the black car that held my father disappear around the block, the strongest sensation I had was not that this couldn’t be happening, but that it was. It was like being awakened from a stupor, not falling into a nightmare. I couldn’t have explained it to anyone then. Not even to myself. It was only in the years that followed that I realized this was the moment my eyes were opened to what the world is really like.
Eventually, the family is reunited at the Crystal City Internment Camp in Texas, where they, along with hundreds of other German-American and Japanese-American families, are assigned to remain throughout the war years. Life in the camp isn’t awful for Elise, because she finds Mariko — also an American-born daughter of immigrants. They attend the mixed school together and become deeply connected friends, sharing their dreams, their hopes, and their fears, and making grand plans for the life they’ll spend together after the war, moving to New York and pursuing their adult lives side by side.
It’s not to be, sadly — first Elise’s family and then Mariko’s are chosen for repatriation. Despite being American citizens, Elise and her brother Max along with her parents are sent to Germany in exchange for Americans being held there. Suddenly, in what will be the final year of the war, the family is thrust into a war zone. While Elise’s father’s family is there to welcome them and offer them a home, it isn’t home for Elise, who doesn’t even speak the language. From the safety of American soil, Elise finds herself in a strange land, where bombs fall over night as the Allied armies get closer and closer, and where the day after a bombing raid reveals nothing but death and destruction.
Throughout this time, it’s the thought of Mariko and their friendship that gives Elise hope, until the day a letter from Mariko arrives, telling Elise that she’s being forced to marry and that her family forbids any further contact. Heartbroken, Elise struggles to find a way to move forward, until a meeting with an American GI after the German surrender opens up new opportunities for her.
Enough synopsis! I won’t give away any further plot details. The Last Year of the War is a very compelling story, and Elise is a very sympathetic character. It’s almost impossible to imagine, sitting her in the comfort of the 21st century, that an American citizen could be torn away from her country like this and sent into a war zone, but the key events in this book are drawn from the historical record. The Crystal City camp was a real place, and repatriation of Japanese and German immigrants and their families really did happen.
I was actually shocked to discover that German-Americans were sent to internment camps — I’d only ever read about Japanese-Americans and their treatment during WWII. It might be just ignorance on my part, but it seems like that element of the war years has never been as publicly known and reported. I was equally shocked to learn about the repatriation of families to Japan and Germany. It seems incredibly cruel to send these people into war-torn countries for no reason other than the fact of their birthplaces — or in the cases of Elise, Mariko, and their siblings, the birthplaces of their parents.
Based on the synopsis of the book, I’d expected to have Elise and Mariko share the historical pieces of the story, but the book is actually Elise’s story, told through her memories of her war years and beyond. We learn about Mariko through Elise’s perspective, so once the girls are separated, we only know what happened to Mariko when Elise finds out more. This doesn’t diminish the power of the story — Elise’s experiences are powerful and fascinating on their own — but it was a little out of alignment with my initial expectations.
That doesn’t mean that I didn’t love this book, because I absolutely did. I learned pieces of history that were new and surprising to me, and beyond that, I got to meet characters who are richly drawn, deeply relatable, and full of hopes, fears, and passions that resonate. Elise goes on to live a life of purpose and meaning, but never forgets Mariko and what their brief time together meant to her.
My only wish might be that Elise and Mariko had more time together once they were reunited. These pieces of the story are so powerful, but we only get small segments of this time, as a framing device for the historical pieces of the story.
All in all, I’d say that The Last Year of the War is a must-read for fans of historical fiction or for anyone who wants to learn more about an unseen chapter of the war. It’s a wonderfully rich story of two friends and how a connection like theirs can change lives. Highly recommended!
Title: The Last Year of the War
Author: Susan Meissner
Publication date: March 19, 2019
Length: 389 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley