Things We Didn't Say
I’m a big fan of epistolary novels and books set in the WWII time period, so Things We Didn’t Say, a story told in letters, snippets from newspapers, and telegrams about a WWII prison camp for German soldiers in a small town in Minnesota was a perfect fit for me.
Johanna Berglund was always an outlier in the hamlet of Ironside Lake, MN. While other girls were dreaming of weddings, Joanna wanted nothing more than to study languages at university, with her heart set on Oxford. The war is wreaking havoc with everyone’s plans however and 1944 finds her (somewhat) contentedly studying linguistics at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. She still plans to go to Oxford, she just has to graduate and wait for the war to end for that to happen. Not being able to go to England has been a bit of a let-down, but she’s put her time to good use by correcting any mistakes her professors make in the classroom as she studies modern languages. Her skills in French, Danish, Greek and Latin are exemplary, but it is her fluency in German that draws the attention of the U.S. Army. Their plans to put a prison camp in Ironside Lake will serve a two-fold purpose: provide a permanent settlement for the prisoners far away from typical avenues of escape, and supply workers for the farmers in the area who have been requesting them from the Trade Center Committee. For the program to succeed they need an expert translator and Johanna, with her deep ties to the community and her facility with languages, seems ideal.
Johanna’s response to the request for her services is an emphatic no. She has no plans to ever return to Ironside Lake and the heartaches and rejections she left behind there. Furthermore, the community can offer her nothing to advance her dreams, and having her associated with the camp will put her father, the mayor, in a very awkward position. The townspeople are up in arms about the arrival of the prisoners, whom they absolutely do not want anywhere in their vicinity. Their little burg has lost too many sons to the war for them to have any charitable feelings towards enemy soldiers.
The army, of course, prevails both in the placement of their penitentiary and, via a threat to Johanna’s scholarship, obtaining their choice of translator. When Johanna describes her woes to Peter Ito, a close friend, he encourages her to make the best of the situation. Peter, a Californian of Japanese descent, is an expert at doing just that. He is working at Camp Savage, teaching Japanese to military personnel and civilians involved in the war effort while his family languishes in an internment camp
Initially, Johanna is surly and rather difficult to work with but when she is ordered to teach the prisoners English, she begins to interact with the men of the camp and begins viewing them more sympathetically. She is especially pleased to make the acquaintance of the handsome and charming German spokesman Stefan Werner, whose quick wit and fluent English make him an asset to her class. But their friendship has repercussions that she could never have imagined.
The novel starts with a bang; we learn right away that Johana has been accused of and is awaiting trial on the charge of treason. While the details of the case are not given in that early letter, the sense of impending doom it imparts stays with us throughout the novel as we try to determine exactly what happened. The author does a nice job of setting Johanna up as someone whom we could see involved in such malfeasance from the start. Her strong sense of self and her belief in forging her own path could easily serve as an impetus to action in righting what she perceived to be an injustice. It took no effort to imagine Johanna behaving in a manner she considered righteous and the army considered treasonous.
Contrasting Johanna’s driven and forceful personality is Peter’s easy going, far more amiable nature. He is as moral as Johanna, but his principles are tempered with courtesy, patience and compassion. For all that we are often reminded of Johanna’s prodigious intelligence, Peter seems far more capable of making reasoned, balanced decisions. He also seems to understand people far more. I loved that their deepening friendship shows how dissimilar personalities can harmonize so that a more pleasing whole is achieved.
The author also does a great job of characterizing the enterprisingly sleazy newsman who plays a pivotal role in the plot, the army personnel and the townsfolk of Ironside through their mail. Each missive conveys the character of the writer succinctly and successfully.
There is a romance here, although it doesn’t take place until after the thirty percent mark, which means it occurs in spoiler territory. Suffice it to say that it’s easy to figure out whom Johanna falls in love with given that the bulk of congenial correspondence occurs with only one man who isn’t her father or an elderly pastor.
This is an inspirational romance, and Ms. Green does a fantastic job of weaving faith lightly and naturally into the story. The primary theme – that God sustains us during dark times – is one that is organic to the plot and appropriate to the time period.
The history here is handled marvelously, with the frank look at American bigotry and the close-mindedness that can be a hallmark of small town mentality being spotlighted for the harm they cause. The text also does a terrific job of showing how those cast in the role of second class citizens – women, Blacks, or any hyphenated American – often love a country which doesn’t love them back.
For all that I adored about this story, it has one flaw that kept it from DIK status – the pacing of the narrative lags. After the shocking revelation at the beginning of the book, the rhythm of the story settles into a rather leisurely account of life in the small town home-front. While this gives us a chance to become familiar with the characters and their daily routines, it also provides an excellent opportunity for disinterest. I didn’t find myself fully engaged in the tale until I hit the fifty percent mark. Up to that point the story is a mildly pleasing read that makes some important historical points but which is not exactly riveting. Fortunately, the second half of the book is completely captivating.
My only other quibble is that I am not sure Johanna ever comes to a full realization of the dangers of her impetuosity. I would have appreciated the author forcing her to acknowledge that a bit more.
In spite of its minor flaws, Things We Didn’t Say is a sweet, heartfelt read and anyone who enjoys epistolary stories will find a lot to love in this charming novel.