Desert Isle Keeper
The Last Year of the War
Early in 2018, I picked up a copy of Susan Meissner’s breath-taking novel As Bright As Heaven, the story of one family’s desperate struggle to survive the influenza epidemic of 1919. It was one of my favorite books of the year, and I’ve been powering through Ms. Meissner’s other novels ever since. Now though, she’s come out with something new, and I absolutely cannot wait for the world to fall i love with this devastatingly beautiful piece of writing.
The Last Year of the War is the story of Elise Santag, a fourteen-year-old girl, born to German immigrants. She and her family live in Iowa, and Elise has never thought of herself as anything but an American. Sure, her parents were born in Germany, but Elise and her younger brother were both born in America, and know little to nothing about the lives her parents lived in Europe. But when America enters the Second World War, Elise and her family are rounded up and shipped off to an internment camp in Texas. The government believes Mr. Santag is a Nazi sympathizer, and nothing anyone says can change the minds of the people in power.
Life in the camp is unlike anything Elise has ever imagined. She and her family are forced to live in something resembling a horse stall, and they’re constantly being watched by camp officials. Elise’s parents urge her to keep her spirits up, to do whatever she can to live something like a normal life, but Elise isn’t sure she can do that. She longs for her home, her friends, and most of all, her freedom.
The only bright spot in Elise’s new life is her budding friendship with Mariko Inoue, a teenager of Japanese descent whose family is also living in the camp. Together, Elise and Mariko do everything they can to keep their hopes and dreams alive amidst the horrors of camp life. They’re not sure what life after the war will look like, but they vow to experience it together, even if their parents might not approve.
Unfortunately, Elise and her family are sent back to Germany while Mariko accompanies her own family back to Japan. Neither girl understands the exact circumstances under which they are forced to leave America, but Elise vows to return as soon as she turns eighteen. She hopes to one day be reunited with Mariko, but a series of unforeseen circumstances keep the friends apart for more than fifty years.
The Last Year of the War is a lovely homage to the power of true friendship. The author takes an unflinching look at one of the darkest parts of American history, and she manages to imbue her prose with all the pain, hopelessness, and broken dreams those who lived through the war experienced. At the same time, our heroine possesses a core of inner strength that gives this difficult story a sense of hope we don’t often see in historical novels set during this time. I imagine this was a difficult balance to strike, but Ms. Meissner makes it look almost effortless.
If you’re looking for an historical romance, this may not be the book for you. Elise does eventually marry and have children, but her relationship with her husband is not the main focus of this story. Instead, the author concentrates on the unbreakable bond between Elise and Mariko, and the ways their friendship shapes both of their lives.
The story deals with some heavy subject matter and as a result, is not at all an easy read. Some readers may find it helpful to step away from the novel for a while in order to better take stock of events, but I urge everyone to at least give the book a try. It’s a timely and important story with unforgettable characters and a message of beauty and hope that the world desperately needs to hear.