Hesse’s compelling 2016 YA historical novel, “ Girl in the Blue Coat,” centered on young resistance fighters in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam. In “The War Outside,” she again uses a well-researched historical backdrop to tell a powerful coming-of-age story, this time about two interned teens.
Hesse, who writes about gender issues for The Washington Post, isn’t the first to set a novel in the internment camps, but no one, to my knowledge, has ever written with so much sensitivity about the fraught relationship between two imprisoned teens caught up in a drama for which neither is responsible. These emotionally fragile friends are Haruko Tanaka, the daughter of Japanese immigrants who were living in Colorado before their forced resettlement, and Margot Krukow, the daughter of German-born parents who were farmers in Iowa before they were relocated.
The young women’s somewhat mystifying relationship is as tension-filled as any suspense tale. Haruko and Margot can’t articulate to themselves or each other what their true connection might be. We watch their relationship grow, yet, like them, we don’t understand its essence. Is it a circumstantial friendship, the desperate need for a confidante or something more? At one of their clandestine meetings in the camp’s icehouse, they experience a physical reaction to each other that neither can explain.
Both are dealing with family issues, and Hesse deftly intuits the challenges of being a teenager living behind barbed-wire fences. Margot is embarrassed by her father, who begins to embrace the ideology of the camp’s Nazi sympathizers. Haruko worries about her brother Ken, an American soldier fighting overseas. She also worries that her father, who was sent to the camp for allegedly sharing military secrets, is hiding a terrible truth. Such concerns, alongside Haruko and Margot’s confusing relationship, propel the novel’s action. But it’s Ken who lays bare the novel’s message about the dangers of normalizing fearmongering and intolerance.
When Ken gets a short leave to visit his family in Crystal City, Haruko tries to assure him that everyone in the camp is fine. Ken tells her: “Don’t let yourself think this is normal.”
His warning brings to mind recent comments by an American immigration official who likened the holding facilities for child detainees separated from their parents to summer camps. “I don’t want you to ever forget where you are,” Ken tells Haruko. “You are a prisoner here. I don’t care if you have a new friend, or if there’s a school newspaper, or if there are books in the library, or if there are community picnics. Or if there’s a football team everyone comes out to cheer for. At the end of the day you’re a prisoner in the only way that matters. If our family wanted to leave they wouldn’t let you.”
If your moral outrage meter wasn’t already maxed out by the recent spate of border arrests and family separations, it will be after reading the extremely relevant “The War Outside.”
Carol Memmott is a freelance journalist and book critic.
Monica Hesse will be at Politics and Prose on Connecticut Avenue NW on Oct. 4 at 7 p.m.
THE WAR OUTSIDE
By Monica Hesse. 318 pp. $17.99