When the novel opens, Chess Morton is headed to the site of the former Camp Nine to meet David Matsui, a famous musician she knew 20 years prior when he was interned there as a boy with his family during the war. The intervening years separated them but his imminent return takes her back to that time when she was still so innocent and questioning. Then a 13 year old girl from the area's wealthiest family, she lived with her widowed mother just across from her paternal grandparents. Set apart from the community because of her family, her mother's progressiveness, and her own curiousity, Chess senses the underlying tensions swirling through tiny Rook, Arkansas. And when her grandfather, as her guardian, sells the land called Camp Nine to the government for a supposed prisoner of war camp, Chess will see the tensions come to a head and change her view of the world.
Rook is a farming community, traditional and strictly segregated, where interactions between whites and the blacks who serve them are rigidly codified and constrained. And it is into this world that the US government thrusts thousands of disenfranchised Japanese-Americans. Carolina March Morton, Chess's mother, is the daughter of Italian immigrants who married into the locally important Morton family but not before she went to college in California. When the Japanese-Americans arrive from California, Carolina sees in them not people who are enemies or suspect but simply people who lived where she was once so happy and with whom she can reminisce. She takes Chess with her to the camp, against Chess' wishes, so that she too can see the truth and shame of the situation, even at her young age. While Carolina teaches art classes at Camp Nine, Chess becomes friends with Henry and David Matsui. Henry is asked to answer yes to the "Loyalty Oath" and to go and fight for the country that has imprisoned him while David, slightly younger, sneaks out of camp to hone his musical skills with Uncle Willie, a blind blues player who lives in a cabin close to the camp.
There are many disparate plot lines threading through the narrative but their thematic similarity ties them together to form a coherent whole. Schiffer has a light touch when writing about very freighted topics and maintains the novel's tensions well but allows the reader to draw his or her own conclusions and judgements about the characters and their actions rather than heavy-handedly forcing an understanding. Her choice of Chess as narrator, an innocent who is nevertheless an insider by virtue of birth, is an interesting one and ultimately quite successful. That Chess doesn't fully understand the events of that time until her meeting twenty years later with David makes her narration just that much more authentic. As much as this novel is about the effects of the Japanese-American internment, it is equally about Chess' coming of age and the ways in which her understanding of the world, colored by the presence of the camp, matures and widens. Race, class, tolerance, and the prevailing power structure all play enormous roles in the novel. A different perspective on a shameful piece of our history, Schiffer has written a very readable and poignant tale.
For more information about Vivienne Schiffer and the book visit her webpage.
Thanks to Trish from TLC Book Tours and the publisher for sending me a copy of the book for review.