The Last Year of the War by Susan Meissner

Thanks to NetGalley and Berkeley Publishing Group for an advance reader copy in exchange for my honest opinion. Book to be released on March 19, 2019 .

Writing: 4 Characters: 4.5 Plot: 4

An historical novel that plunges you right into the WWII period through the eyes of Elsie Sontag — a ten-year old Iowan girl whose life is utterly upended when her father is unjustly arrested as an enemy alien under Executive Order 9066. We follow her along a tortuous path from Iowa to an internment camp in Texas to an unwilling repatriation to Germany in the last year of the war (she doesn’t even speak German). Each step provides a slap-in-the-face kind of opportunity to learn how labels change the way we perceive and treat others.

The book opens when Elise is 81. She is coming to terms with an Alzheimers diagnosis and more than anything wants to find Mariko — the friend she made in the internment camp many years prior. As an aside, I fell in love with this book because of the way Elise anthropomorphizes her disease:

“What I feel is that I’ve been saddled with a sticky-fingered houseguest who is slowly and sweetly taking everything of mine for her own. I can’t get rid of her, the doctor assured me, and I can’t outwit her. I’ve named my diagnosis Agnes after a girl at my junior high school in Davenport — Agnes Finster — who was forever taking things that didn’t belong to her out of lockers.”

Each of the four parts of the book starts with a scene from elderly Elise’s life as she gets closer to finding Mariko. The rest of the book details her journey: Davenport, Iowa after her father’s arrest (part 1), the largely Japanese internment camp (part 2), Germany during the last year of the war (part 3), and finally, her path to and life in California (part 4).

It’s an utterly gripping story — very difficult to put down. Elise’s voice is real and thoroughly human as she struggles to find her place in the world and understand why people behave the way they do. She struggles with finding a place she can call home. The narrative clearly articulates how war affects everyday people who want no part in it and yet are given little choice. I found the historic details to be largely accurate (although I did wonder about a few small details).

Surprising plot twists! Great for both adults and young adults.

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