Thursday, December 1, 2011

Camp Nine by Vivienne Schiffer

On February 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 authorizing the secretary of war to prescribe military zones “from which any or all persons may be excluded.” Eventually this order was applied to one-third of the land area in the United States, mostly in the West, clearing the way for the relocation of 120,000 people of Japanese descent.

This time of fear and prejudice (the U.S. government formally apologized for the relocations in 1982 after determining they were not a military necessity) and the Arkansas Delta are the setting for Camp Nine. The novel’s narrator, Chess Morton, lives in tiny Rook, Arkansas. Her days are quiet and secluded until the appearance of a relocation center built for what was in effect the imprisonment of thousands of Japanese Americans.

Chess’s life becomes intertwined with those of two young internees, and that of an American soldier mysteriously connected to her mother’s past. As Chess watches the struggles and triumphs of these strangers and sees her mother seek justice for these people who came briefly and involuntarily to call the Arkansas Delta their home, she discovers surprising and disturbing truths about her family’s painful past.
I always feel a little bit awkward saying it, but I really do enjoy reading books set against the background of war. I am not sure where this love came from but it was very early on as one of the few books I remember reading in school was Summer of My German Soldier by Betty Greene. In a way, I suppose it is not surprising that I think of that book as I write up my thoughts for this one, given that both are about prisoner of war camps located near small towns and the impact that has on two young girls. This subject of the camps is one that doesn't come up all that often in WWII fiction though. The only other book I have read in the last few years that touches on this setting was Jamie Ford's Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet. Despite this commonality, the three books I have mentioned are all very different books.

Life for young Chess Morton is changed dramatically one summer when suddenly some land near her house is cleared, and a camp is built. Camp Nine has been built specifically to house Japanese internees most of whom have come from California. Families who may have lived in America for many years are routinely rounded up and sent to these camps for the duration of the war based only on their Japanese heritage. Whilst she hasn't had everything easy in life, particularly with the death of her father at a very young age, Chess has lived a pretty sheltered and comfortable life. She lives with her feisty mother who spends most of the time butting heads with her ultra conservative grandparents, especially over Chess's inheritance which her grandfather has control over.

The coming of the camp changes many things for Chess. Carrie, Chess's mother, volunteers to help out at the camp by teaching art to the school aged children. As a result, she befriends many of the families in the camp, including the Matsui family. When Chess starts to accompany her mother, she too is introduced to Henry and David Matsui, both slightly older than her and both very different in temperament. Henry is several years older than Chess. He is studious, polite and determined to be honourable at all cost, and then there is David who is rebellious, daring and a passionate musician for whom playing the blues on the guitar is like finding heaven.

For the Matsuis, life changes when they are asked two questions by the government officials. Their answers will change all of their lives in different ways - firstly, are they willing to fight for the US armed forces, and secondly will they forsake all loyalties to Japan. Answer no to either of these questions and your family could be torn apart but many of the prisoners could not in all honour say yes to both of those questions. For those young men who said yes to both they could find themselves on the next train out to training camps, and then on their way to the theatres of war, often under-appreciated for their service.

For a relatively short book there are numerous layers and nuances running through the narrative. The denseness of the delta is palpable, as is the tension in the small town of Rook between those who are for and against the presence of the camp near their town. In addition, there is a subtle examination of the relationship between Carrie and her former flame Tom who is now the commander of the camp.

Whilst the book is mostly about the Japanese camp experience, there is also discussion about the relationship between the well-off whites, the poor whites, the blacks and the Japanese.
Although I wouldn't have been able to articulate it at the time, there was another problem, one much larger than the vague promise of Ruby Jean's wrath. It was possible for the white people of Rook to interact with the black people, and for the white people of Rook to interact with the Japanese. In each case, it was acceptable only if initiated by a white person. But contact between the blacks and the Japanese? How could I explain to David that it simply wasn't done? I didn't even understand it myself.
Vivienne Schiffer
It is a much older Chess who looks back at her youth and tells the story of her experience of Camp Nine and her friendship with the Matsuis. This sense of distance provides her with a perspective that would have been missing as a twelve year old but even then she needs the added wisdom of a person who is now virtually a stranger to fill in the gaps, to tell her exactly what was happening in the lives of the people around her back then.

There were some lovely passages in the book. This one in particular captured my attention and I have read it several times since. It is a very interesting representation of the concept of white privilege.
"See? Lived your whole life in the Arkansas Delta, and you can't name me one blues man. And you know why? Because you're a cultured, white woman. But I'm not white, Chess. I always thought I was, growing up. But I didn't really know what white was until the United States government carved us out of the white race, set us on a plate, and served us up into a dark corner of Arkansas. That's when I learned what white really is. It's separate. It's sheltered. It's a race apart."

Reading this book made me wonder about the Australian treatment of German, Italian and Japanese nationals who had made Australia their home in the years leading up to World War II. I knew that there had been camps, but other than that.I didn't know much at all! It turns out that we had our own Camp Nine which was near a town called Loveday in the Riverland in South Australia. The location was chosen because it was hundreds of kilometres from the sea, it had good river and transport access. Our Camp Nine held both internees and prisoners of war and it seems they were keen to work and be useful in the same ways that many of the characters in this book were. The most famous camp in Australia was at a place called Cowra, and it most famous because there was a break out by the prisoners. These events were turned into a mini-series some years ago which certainly helped maintain the infamy of that particular camp.

Thanks to TLC Booktours for the opportunity to read this fascinating book! Too see what other bloggers thought of the book, check out the other stops on the tour listed on my blog (linked below).

Rating 4.5/5

Cross posted at The Adventures of an Intrepid Reader


  1. Interesting novel. I'll have to read it. I recently had an interview on my own blog with the author of a novel from the point of view of a Japanese internee, M. H. Sargent, author of the historical novel, Toward Night's End.

    Perhaps after all these decades Americans are finally ready to look at what happened and that often happens through fiction.

  2. This book actually sounds pretty fascinating (which seems funny to say as well).

  3. I am so glad that I found your blog. I actually hated history until I started home schooling. Now there is so much to learn!