Book Review: The Last Year of the War by Susan Meissner



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!

_________________________________________

The details:

Title: The Last Year of the War
Author: Susan Meissner
Publisher: Berkley
Publication date: March 19, 2019
Length: 389 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

Book Review: The Spies of Shilling Lane by Jennifer Ryan



From the bestselling author of The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir comes a thrilling new WWII story about a village busybody—the mighty Mrs. Braithwaite—who resolves to find, and then rescue, her missing daughter

Mrs. Braithwaite, self-appointed queen of her English village, finds herself dethroned, despised, and dismissed following her husband’s selfish divorce petition. Never deterred, the threat of a family secret being revealed sets her hot-foot to London to find the only person she has left—her clever daughter Betty, who took work there at the first rumbles of war.

But when she arrives, Betty’s landlord, the timid Mr. Norris, informs her that Betty hasn’t been home in days–with the chaos of the bombs, there’s no telling what might have befallen her. Aghast, Mrs. Braithwaite sets her bullish determination to the task of finding her only daughter.

Storming into the London Blitz, Mrs. Braithwaite drags the reluctant Mr. Norris along as an unwitting sidekick as they piece together Betty’s unexpectedly chaotic life. As she is thrown into the midst of danger and death, Mrs. Braithwaite is forced to rethink her old-fashioned notions of status, class, and reputation, and to reconsider the question that’s been puzzling her since her world overturned: How do you measure the success of your life?

Readers will be charmed by the unforgettable Mrs. Braithwaite and her plucky, ruthless optimism, and find in The Spies of Shilling Lane a novel with surprising twists and turns, quiet humor, and a poignant examination of mothers and daughters and the secrets we keep. 

Jennifer Ryan is the author of The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir, one of my favorite reads of the past couple of years — and she strikes gold yet again with her newest novel, The Spies of Shilling Lane. Here, we meet the intimidating Mrs. Braithwaite, pushed out of her leadership position with her village women’s volunteer corps after one too many criticisms and commands aimed at the other women. Feeling utterly rejected, Mrs. Braithwaite decides to go visit her 21-year-old daughter Betty, who left the village to take up a clerical position in London, seeking excitement and a sense of purpose during wartime.

However, when Mrs. Braithwaite arrives at Betty’s lodging house, she finds out that no one has seen her daughter in at least four days, and while no one else seems particularly panicked, Mrs. Braithwaite is sure that Betty must need rescuing. And nobody stands between Mrs. Braithwaite and her daughter! She sets out to find her daughter, coercing poor Mr. Norris to help her out, and uses her cyclone energy to push, demand, and bully people into giving her information.

It turns out that her motherly instincts were indeed correct and Betty is in trouble, of a sort that Mrs. Braithwaite could not have anticipated. And despite the tumultuous, strained relationship between mother and daughter, Mrs. Braithwaite charges into action to save Betty, only to end up needing saving in return.

What follows is a rollicking adventure, full of can-do spirit as well as intrigue and double-crossing. Mrs. Braithwaite is an absolute delight as a main character. How many books do we get to read that feature a 50-something-year-old proper Englishwoman as an action hero? She is just a force of nature, and will not let anyone stand in the way of her taking care of her daughter. Of course, Betty is far from helpless, as Mrs. Braithwaite learns, and between the two of them, we see a pair of strong women whose courage makes a difference in the British war effort.

The Spies of Shilling Lane has a light-hearted feel at times, as the action sequences aren’t simply smooth Jame Bond maneuvers, but rather are full of errors and accidents and fumbling about. Mrs. Braithwaite and Mr. Norris are such an unlikely pair of secret agents, tracking down clues, picking locks, and befriending the local criminal element, all in pursuit of a rather nasty bunch of evil-doers. At the same time, the reflections on the mother-daughter relationship, the pressures of societal expectations, and the damage that can be done by overbearing family members are all well described and add resonance to the characters’ feelings and reactions.

It’s also incredibly harrowing and moving to see the air raids and the devastation that results, and I first found myself really loving Mrs. Braithwaite because of her interactions with an injured young woman whom she discovers as she’s searching for Betty.

All in all, I’d say that The Spies of Shilling Lane is an excellent look at remarkable women during wartime. There are plenty of moments that made me smile, as well as scenes of tension and suspense. Mrs. Braithwaite is so delightful — I’d love to read about more of her adventures!

If you enjoy women-centered historical fiction, definitely check this one out!

_________________________________________

The details:

Title: The Spies of Shilling Lane
Author: Jennifer Ryan
Publisher: Crown
Publication date: June 4, 2019
Length: 368 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

Book Review: The Wartime Sisters by Lynda Cohen Loigman

 

Two estranged sisters, raised in Brooklyn and each burdened with her own shocking secret, are reunited at the Springfield Armory in the early days of WWII. While one sister lives in relative ease on the bucolic Armory campus as an officer’s wife, the other arrives as a war widow and takes a position in the Armory factories as a “soldier of production.” Resentment festers between the two, and secrets are shattered when a mysterious figure from the past reemerges in their lives.

The Wartime Sisters is the second novel by Lynda Cohen Loigman, whose debut novel The Two-Family House came out in 2016 (reviewed here). Both books focus on women’s lives during the 20th century, and both examine the intricate relationships between sisters, friends, and the people who come into their lives.

In The Wartime Sisters, Millie and Ruth couldn’t be more different. Ruth is three years older than Millie, and spends her entire childhood and adolescence hearing about her sister’s beauty and charm. Millie is the one their mother pins her hopes on, fantasizing about how the endless crowd of suitors will yield the perfect man to propose to Millie and make all her dreams come true. Meanwhile, Ruth grows up realizing that she’ll never be the pretty one, and resents Millie for always being the center of attention… never stopping to ask herself if Millie actually wants or enjoys the attention that comes her way.

The story flashes back and forth between the late 1930s, as the girls approach womanhood, and 1942/1943, as they settle into life at an army base in Massachusetts. We learn over time how they came to be there, and how they became so estranged from one another following their parents’ death.

Interwoven throughout their chapters on their earlier years is a nice evocation of Jewish life in Brooklyn at that time, showing the ways in which the family’s religion and culture define their world, their friends, and their approaches to life. Meanwhile, in Springfield, both Millie and Ruth form new bonds among the military wives and base workers, who represent a different but no less vibrant sort of community.

The Wartime Sisters shows the damage done to women’s souls through neglect and abuse, and also by the small and large cruelties carried out through resentment and gossip. In Springfield, we meet two additional women who fill large roles in the sisters’ new lives: Lillian, the base commander’s wife, with her own troubled childhood, is a pillar of strength and goodness amidst the turmoil; and Arietta, a motherly woman with a talent for both singing and cooking, takes Millie under her wing.

It’s sad to see the conflict between Ruth and Millie. As Ruth’s husband is sent overseas as a wartime scientist and Millie arrives, husband-less, impoverished, and burdened by secrets, it would seem that the two women finally have an opportunity to reclaim their relationship and establish a new closeness. Sadly, although Ruth offers a home to Millie, the warmth and ease that should come with it is missing. While the author lets us see why Ruth feels as she does and how her resentments built over time, it’s still hard to empathize. As far as we can see, Millie has never done anything wrong, has never set out to hurt Ruth or to undermine her. Ruth blames Millie for the incessant comparisons unkind neighbors have made all their lives, but it’s clearly just so unfair. Because of Ruth’s animosity, Millie is left to deal with their parents’ death on her own, and makes some calamitous decisions that bring about hardship and suffering. It’s hard to forgive Ruth for what she put Millie through.

In terms of the historical settings, I enjoyed learning about the Springfield Armory and the role women played in wartime readiness and production. The characters are colorful and memorable, and Arietta in particular is a delight to meet.

Overall, I found The Wartime Sisters to be moving and engaging. The story is crisp and nicely constructed, and the length means that it never feel draggy. I enjoyed the exploration of Ruth and Millie’s relationship, and despite being super annoyed with Ruth for much of the story, I thought the build-up of their history together and the explanation of all the baggage they carry with them was really effective and realistic.

_________________________________________

The details:

Title: The Wartime Sisters
Author: Lynda Cohen Loigman
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Publication date: January 22, 2019
Length: 304 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley