The Last Year of the War by Susan Meissner: two American girls sent ‘home’
What is a Nation? It is an imaginary community which enables us to identify with millions of people whom we have never met and most of whom we will never meet. Through it we achieve feats of cooperation that create great and sometimes terrible things. But by imagining an ‘us’ we imagine a ‘them’. How do we decide who is ‘us’ and who is ‘them’?
When I was growing up in mid-20th century England it seemed simple. Like most working-class children, I could trace my ancestry only as far back as my grandparents. As far as I knew (perhaps wrongly) all my ancestors had been white British for at least a thousand years. We were ‘us’. England is no longer like that and it was not like that, even then, in many parts of the world. For example, in much of America, ancestry and ethnicity could not be the test of nationality. Being American was a matter of choice, shared experience, formal education, rituals and symbols. As Scott-Fitzgerald wrote, ‘France was a land, England was a people, but America, having still about it the quality of an idea, was harder to utter.’ He seemed to think that America would in time develop a more European sense of identity. Instead, with the increasing mobility of the world’s peoples, many nations, including the US, now share this melding of backgrounds.
The Last Year of the War (Berkley, 2019) by Susan Meissner is the story of two girls who were fifteen years old in 1944. They were born in America, thought of themselves as American, became friends. But then they were rejected by America. Elise had German parents and Mariko’s parents were Japanese and they were interned at the Crystal City internment camp in Texas as enemy aliens in World War II. Later, each was deported to her ancestral homeland. Eventually they found their way back to their native land and were reunited at the end of their lives.
Crystal City was the only family internment camp among the scores of camps set up in America to accommodate Japanese and German-Americans who were considered a danger to America, often as the result of a denunciation by a neighbour. The price of family reunion in Crystal City was for the head of the family to volunteer to have his family ‘repatriated’ to his former homeland in exchange for American civilians interned there. For the children it was of course no ‘repatriation’. Crystal City was in effect a hostage bank.
By the last year of the war, Germany no longer had any American civilians available for exchange, so they offered wounded POWs and Jewish concentration camp inmates. In this way, Crystal City became twinned with Bergen-Belsen. Had Anne Frank not died of typhoid, she might well have been part of the last prisoner exchange in February 1945. Several people who knew her were in the exchange, as was Meissner’s fictional Elise.
Although The Last Year of the War is a novel, and Elise and Mariko are fictional characters, the story was inspired by, and is closely based on, Jan Jarboe Russell’s non-fiction work The Train to Crystal City, which the Historical Novel Society featured in 2015. In her author’s acknowledgements, Meissner states: ‘I am . . . indebted to . . . author Jan Jarboe Russell, whose non-fiction work The Train to Crystal City opened my eyes to a World War II story I didn’t know and the couldn’t forget.’
If I were still running my class on “The Historical Novel” I would ask my students to read both books, to illustrate what a good history book can tell us and what a good historical novel can show us, using the same material.
The story Meissner created resonates with my own experience, not surprisingly, since I belong to the same generation as the elderly narrator in The Last Year of the War. I have never been an internee but I have been an evacuee, I have been bombed (as Elise was on her return to Germany) and rescued from the ruins, and I have been an immigrant in the US. My family shared a duplex in Seattle with a Japanese family with two children the same ages as ours (two and four) and it was fascinating to watch them play without a shared language. My wife helped her neighbour with her homework for her American Living class, and taught her to bake an apple pie the English way.
But a good novel takes us beyond our own experience. In the person of Meissner’s Elise, I could experience what it would be like to be denied one’s national identity, divided from one’s friends and deported to a war-torn homeland where one is still an alien.
Does it have to be like this? If we have an Us do we have to have a Them?