The Last Year of the War by Susan Meissner is a poignant, informative novel that highlights a little mentioned, shameful piece of American history.
In 1943, fourteen year old Elise Sontag, her younger brother Max and her German immigrant parents’ peaceful life in Iowa is torn asunder. Elise’s father is arrested by the FBI then sent to an internment camp which leaves the rest of the family struggling to make ends meet. With her mother not handling the situation well, her father makes the decision to ask for the family to be reunited and sent to live together at the Crystal City internment camp in Texas. There, Elise and her family live side by side with Japanese American and Italian American families.
Shocked to find themselves living behind fences with armed guards, Elise forms a close friendship with Mariko Inoue, a Japanese American teenager whose family is from Los Angeles. Elise and Mariko are inseparable during the eighteen months before the Sontag family is repatriated to Germany and the Inoues wait to learn if they will repatriate to Japan. Clinging to the plan she and Mariko make to reunite after they turn eighteen, Elise and her parents are stunned by the life which awaits them in Germany. Will Elise and Mariko return to America? Or does fate have other plans for the two young women?
Despite their German heritage, Elise and Max have been raised to be Americans. They do not speak German nor have they ever stepped foot in Germany. Like everyone else in their community, they are touched by the effects of World War II but they are not viewed as they enemy. Elise and her small family are shocked by her father’s arrest and how quickly their friends and neighbours turn on them afterward. Elise soon realises her mother does not have the strength to endure their situation without her husband, so she understands her father’s decision to move all of them to Crystal City. However, she is shocked by their repatriation to Germany where the Allies are quickly defeating the Reich.
Life in war torn Germany is dangerous and Elise clings to her friendship with Mariko and continues to dream of their reunion. As months pass without word from her friend, Elise gradually adjusts to her new circumstances. She never sees herself as anything but American as she begins to realise Max and her parents are becoming more entrenched in Germany. When her hopes are dashed that she will ever see Mariko again, Elise’s friendship with American soldier Ralph Dove leads to an unexpected decision that will forever change her life.
The Last Year of the War is an unflinching portrait of the hardships endured by German, Japanese and Italian immigrants who were viewed as the enemy after America enters World War II. These families endured harsh conditions in internment camps and many were forced to return to their mother countries in exchange for Americans caught behind enemy lines. Elise’s and Mariko’s friendship transcends their differences and sustains them as they are forced to leave the United States. With impeccable research, a compelling storyline and appealing characters, Susan Meissner brings this little known part of America’s past vibrantly to life. I was absolutely captivated throughout this deeply affecting, heartbreaking and ultimately uplifting novel. A must read that details a very dark time in the American history.