The Last Year of the War
“The Last Year of the War is timely and important today, when thousands of would-be immigrants from Latin America are cruelly being held in detention centers or deported solely because of their nationality.
In June 2018, when the U.S. Supreme Court officially overturned a previous Court’s infamous 1944 Korematsu decision, news reports explained that Korematsu had upheld the forced internment of more than 100,000 Japanese-Americans during World War II.
That’s true enough. But what history lessons and news reports usually omit is that approximately 11,000 German Americans and 3,000 Italian Americans were also interned as potential security risks because of their ethnic backgrounds.
The new novel The Last Year of the War focuses on one such family—the Sontags of Davenport, Iowa—who are interned in a Texas camp for 18 months and then “repatriated” back to a Germany that neither of the American-born children, 14-year-old Elise and 10-year-old Max, have ever seen.
Shunted from place to place, Elise ultimately belongs nowhere—rejected by her American neighbors and uncomfortable in her new German community. As she muses in the internment camp, “I wasn’t an ordinary American teenager after all. I was a German teenager who didn’t speak German and had never been to Germany, who was now living thirty miles from the Mexican border.”
When the Sontag family arrives in collapsing, Nazi-ruled Germany as the war in Europe is nearing its end, life becomes surreally miserable. The local Sturmbannfuhrer orders them to work making fuses for bombs that Germany will drop on their former homeland; then they huddle in cellars to escape the bombs that their former homeland is dropping on their new country.
On top of that, Elise’s father warns her not to talk in public “unless you can say what you need in German.” After all, English-speaking Americans are the enemy.
“He was asking me to be invisible,” Elise realizes.
Ralph Dove, a friendly young G.I. in the postwar Occupation army, seems to offer an ideal solution: He will marry Elise and take her back to the U.S. Elise accepts the proposal knowing the strings that are attached.
That story—the majority of the novel—is related in flashback by Elise, now 81 and slowly succumbing to Alzheimer’s.
In an intertwined, present-day narrative, the older Elise is trying to find Mariko Inoue, the Japanese girl who was her close friend at the internment camp. When Mariko’s family was sent to Japan soon after that country surrendered, her parents insisted that she stop writing to Elise.
Through the Internet-–in her intermittently lucid moments—Elise learns that Mariko, now widowed, is living in San Francisco with her grown daughter, a hotel manager. Elise immediately flies from Los Angeles to San Francisco, trying to outrace both her disease and Mariko’s stage- four breast cancer.
The best part of this novel, other than the historical revelations, is the way Elise names her disease Agnes, “after a girl at my junior high school in Davenport—Agnes Finster—who was forever taking things that didn’t belong to her.”
Alzheimer Agnes, Elise says, “is adept at seizing little moments of my day, and when she does, she takes control of my mouth and then says the most ridiculous things.”
Those Agnes descriptions are a bright exception to an otherwise bland writing style. Still, author Susan Meissner, a former journalist and award-winning veteran novelist, knows how to spin an engrossing plot peopled by complex human beings.
And beyond its literary strengths and flaws, The Last Year of the War is timely and important today, when thousands of would-be immigrants from Latin America are cruelly being held in detention centers or deported solely because of their nationality, just like the Sontag and Inoue families.