The Last Year of the War

The Last Year of the War by Susan Meissner opens with an elderly Elise Dove, who has just been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Elise calls her disease “Agnes” and describes her as “a sticky-fingered houseguest who is slowly and sweetly taking everything of mine for her own.”

As Elise mourns the memories she will some day lose, she thinks of a long-ago friend she met in an internment camp during WWII.

Elise was a teenager then, living like any American teenager in Iowa. One day Elise came home from school to find strangers rifling through their belongings while her German parents were seated at the table. Elise thought they were being robbed. In a way, they were. A few statements and actions of her father’s had been misinterpreted, and he was suspected of being secretly involved in Nazi activities. The whole family was eventually shipped to an internment camp in Crystal City, Texas.

There Elise met Mariko Inoue, a Japanese teen girl who sounded every bit as American as Elise. The two became friends for the eighteen months they were in the camp, and even beyond. But their families were repatriated to the parents’ home countries, and the girls lost touch for the next sixty years.

Now Elise’s housekeeper has taught her how to look people up on Google with her new iPad. Elise decides to fly out to the place where she thinks Mariko is, without telling her children about the trip or about “Agnes.”

The present-day Elise’s search is sprinkled with flashbacks of her family’s trials, time in the internment camp and then in Germany, and what happened to them after that.

I had known about internment camps, but didn’t realize German and Japanese Americans were interned together. I also thought of the camps like POW camps. But they were actually like small towns, with schools, stores, jobs, etc. However, there were also fences, barbed wire, and guards with guns.

Both the present and past narratives are compelling. Having had a mother-in-law with dementia, I was a little on edge during the older Elise’s travels, hoping she’d be okay. For that reason, the very end, the last couple of paragraphs, were disappointing. They fit in with a metaphor raised earlier in the book, but they left Elise hanging, which left me without a satisfying resolution. But the rest of the story was very good.

I’ve read Christian or inspirational fiction from Susan Meissner, but this is pretty much strictly historical fiction. The only mention of God I can recall is a passing statement. Sadly, there are a few bad words, which I was disappointed to see.

I very much enjoyed Kimberly Farr’s narration of the audiobook.

I’ve read lots of WWII fiction, but this is the first I’ve read that is partially set in an internment camp. How about you? Have you read anything about the camps?

Book Review: The Medallion

In The Medallion by Cathy Gohlke, Sophie Kumiega is a Brit living in her husband’s city of Warsaw, Poland, in 1939. He’s a fighter pilot, in the air during the German attack on Warsaw. He can’t get back into the country after Germany’s occupation. Sophie first tries to work, until the library where she is employed is bombed and taken over. Then she helps the underground in various ways, still unsure whether her husband lives.

In the same city, Rosa and Itzhak Dunovich are a Jewish couple dealing with the increasing encroachment of German occupation. They welcome their first child into the Jewish ghetto. Itzhak worries about his family in another town. He devises a way to go to them to see if they’re safe or bring them back to Warsaw if they’re not.

But Itzhak doesn’t return. Food becomes even more scarce, atrocities increase. Rosa makes a heart-wrenching decision. The only way to protect her daughter is to send her with an underground nurse who finds places to hide Jewish children. Rosa cuts in half the tree of life medallion Itzhak gave her on her wedding day and places it on a chain around her daughter’s neck. When the war is over, hopefully she will be able to match her half of the medallion to her child’s and reclaim her.

I can’t imagine living through what either Sophie or Rosa did. Both saw loved ones die and conditions grow worse. Sophie had to constantly be aware of who was around and who might see and report her. Rosa dealt with the effects of deprivation and starvation.

I had an idea how the plot might end, but it took quite a different route there than I had guessed.

In the afterword. Cathy told how she became intrigued with two different true stories—one of a woman who posed as a nurse and hid Jewish children in convent schools or with Gentile helpers, and another involving searching for a child with half a medallion given up during the war. She wove them together in this story.

Somehow I happened to have both the Kindle and Audible versions of this book. It was nice to be able to pick up either one where I left off from the other. Normally the audiobook narration enhances the story, but this one felt a little overdone to me.

But all in all, an excellent, touching book.

(Sharing with Booknificent Thursday, Carole’s Books You Loved)

Book Review: Sandhill Dreams

Sandhill Dreams: A WWII Homefront Romance by Cara Putnam is the second in her Cornhusker Dreams series. The first book, Canteen Dreams, was a fictional retelling of Cara’s grandparents’ love story. Sandhill Dreams features a friend from the first book, Lainie Gardner.

Lainie’s dream was to be a nurse and serve her country. She began her training but then contracted rheumatic fever. She recovered, but still experienced residual symptoms. She had to be careful about overdoing, stress, or anything else that might trigger a relapse.

Still, she wanted to do something to help during WWII. She traveled to Fort Robinson in Nebraska without any prior arrangements, figuring surely they’d find some use for her there.

Tom Hamilton had a serious accident involving a dog bite as a boy, and he’d been afraid of dogs ever since. He joined the Army hoping to work with horses, but the Army assigned him to the canine unit. He hopes he can successfully battle both his disappointment and his fear without any officers or soldiers noticing.

Lainie and Tom get off on the wrong foot. They both have issues to deal with. But perhaps they can help each other recover from their broken dreams and find new ones.

I like stories that aren’t just romance, but have the characters grow, overcome obstacles, etc. This book fit the bill. I thought it ended just a touch abruptly, but perhaps that’s because it’s the middle of a series, and the story is ongoing.

(Sharing with Booknificent Thursday, Carole’s Books You Loved)