We are all curious about other people’s lives, aren’t we? That’s why photo albums are endlessly fascinating, people we know seen as children, and their parents, young and hopeful and in places we will never understand. That’s the key—the peek into other people’s secrets and lives—that’s so incredibly compelling about the talented Susan Meissner’s gorgeously heartbreaking novel of friendship and the past.
If I ask you about World War II, what comes to mind? Most of us think of bravery and honor and sacrifice and sorrow, of patriotism and a battle against unimaginable evil. We all know about the concentration camps in Germany, and the internment of the Japanese in the United States. But Meissner has pulled back the curtain on a hidden part of history.
Families of German heritage, patriotic Americans, interned in camps here in the United States, snared in the web of fear and suspicion that galvanized the United States. Sometimes with brilliant success, breaking spy rings and preventing disaster. But other times—incorrectly. And with devastating results for those who were swept up in the relentless drive to make sure Americans were safe.
What does a child know of war? My husband’s mother told us a dream she had once as a pre-teen, of being terrified, sitting in her New York apartment, that the German soldiers would come and take her little brother. An unreasonable and constant anxiety, based on nothing except what a child’s brain could fathom.
That fear, that misunderstanding, that longing for safety, that bafflement about what adults do—all those are present in The Last Year of the War (Berkley). In this touching and unforgettable novel, 14-year-old Elise Sontag, a typical Iowa teenager, is aware of the war but to her, it’s far far away. Until her father, a legal US resident for nearly two decades, is arrested on suspicion of being a Nazi sympathizer.
Think about that for a moment. Fourteen-year-old you, living your little life, when suddenly the police come to the door, and in a gasping moment of bafflement to you and your younger brother and your mother, they take your father away. Not only take him away, but accuse him, unfairly, of a thing that will cause you not only devastating sorrow but unending derision and bullying and suspicion from your classmates and neighbors. Can your life ever be even close to the same?
When Elise’s family is sent to an internment camp–which Meissner must have researched to an infinite degree—there is fear and surveillance and uncertainty. But there are also the beginnings of a lifetime friendship. Behind the armed guards and barbed wire, Elise meets fellow internee Mariko Inoue, a Japanese American teenager from Los Angeles.
Two young girls against the world, both ethnicities reviled, both innocent, are both caught up in a web of true terror. They are the tiniest of big players in the big picture, but the biggest of players in their own sweet lives.
But that is not the whole story. When the war ends, in one incredibly touching moment, Elise thinks:
“People can be good and people can be monsters. Even as I realized this, it seemed the earth gave a shuddering sigh of relief that we humans were done with our fighting.
And now we’d have all have to discover what we’d allowed the war to make of us.
Or, for some, what the war had made of us despite what we had wanted.”
Gorgeously structured, and beginning with a dying Elise searching for her long lost friend, this beautifully written fictional memoir, as cinematic as a real photo album, takes us to a time we could not know. It shows us the depth of friendship, the moments of courage, impossible love, crucial decisions, and the heartbreaking devastation that happens to the innocent collateral damage of a world war. Can friendship survive? Can family, can love, can devotion to a true friend save your life? And will that devotion last only through the war, or until you both die?
And to add to the desperate constant poignancy—a wedding—why? And the greatest personal evil of all—the looming threat of Alzheimer’s, the villain who threatens to take away Elise’s dear memories of Mariko before they can have a late-in-life reunion.
And then, even then, there are surprises.
Sometimes book reviews like this contain elaborate synopses, but I will let you experience the joys of this novel on your own. And the sorrows, and the emotional journey. And the memories long after you close the final page.
I will confess I read this book with some trepidation. I am ridiculously vulnerable to sorrow, and will confess to you, dear readers, that I avoid sad books on purpose. My father was in the Battle of the Bulge and was taken prisoner by the Germans after being marched through the snow to a prison camp. When I opened this book, I knew it would touch me, but I could not have predicted how much. Reading this book is a life-changing experience. It is beautiful, and careful, and wise, and honest.
The Last Year of the War is now available.
About Susan Meissner
Susan Meissner is the critically-acclaimed author of more than 20 novels. Her engaging stories feature memorable characters facing unique and complex circumstances, often against a backdrop of historical significance. A multi-award winning author, her books have earned starred reviews in both Publishers Weekly and Booklist. She attended Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego and is a former managing editor of a weekly Minnesota newspaper. She enjoys teaching workshops on writing, spending time with her family, reading great books, and traveling. Susan makes her home in the San Diego area with her husband Bob, a pastor and chaplain in the Air Force Reserves. They are the parents of four adult children.