Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Review: Camp Nine by Vivienne Schiffer

Interning Japanese-Americans in "relocation camps" during World War II is a shameful, and often ignored, part of US history. We imprisoned our own citizens based solely on their racial and cultural history and whether it was out of ignorance, fear, or greed, it was a terrible wrong. There are now increasing numbers of wonderful books, fiction and non-fiction, that have grown out of the internment experience but almost all of them are from the perspective of the Japanese-Americans. Schiffer has written the first book that I've come across that examines the effect of one of these camps on a young white girl in the area. I knew about the camps and have read extensively on the subject of them but I was unaware that such a camp was opened in the south where racial tensions were already simmering.

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.


  1. The detention camps are something I've been wanting to read about but never have - sounds like this book would be a great place to start.

    Thanks for being on the tour. I'm featuring your review on TLC's Facebook page today.

  2. Thanks for the excellent review, this went straight on my wishliist when I saw it reviewed on a friend's blog a week or so ago. My Great Uncle was a Japanese POW, so I have an interest in this period.

  3. I'm so glad that you mentioned Willie; he's a minor character in some ways, but, at the same time, his role in crucial in terms of how things develop for David. If Willie hadn't been Willie, that would have been a very different story to tell. (And how interesting that he is blind!)

  4. I will be reading this one over my Thanksgiving break, so I'm glad to see you liked it. I haven't read much about the interment of the Japanese Americans; maybe only Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet. Glad to hear this book uses a different perspective. Will link to your review on War Through the Generations.


I have had to disable the anonymous comment option to cut down on the spam and I apologize to those of you for whom this makes commenting a chore. I hope you'll still opt to leave me your thoughts. I love to hear what you think, especially so I know I'm not just whistling into the wind here at my computer.

Popular Posts