Monica Hesse’s books are like time machines — vehicles that help us explore our past.
In her first book, The Girl In The Blue Coat, Hesse delivered a nail-biting deep dive into World War II, following a black marketeer in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam who is suddenly tasked with finding a missing Jewish teenager.
Now Hesse is back, and she’s revisiting an aspect of WWII that’s not frequently discussed: the interment of Japanese Americans and German Americans.
In her upcoming second novel, titled The War Outside, Hesse traces the lives of two teens — Haruko and Margot — who are uprooted from their lives and placed in Crystal City, a family internment camp in west Texas, because they’re parents are German and Japanese. When they meet at the camp’s school, Haruko and Margot believe that they’ll only know each other, and only stay in Crystal City, for a short amount of time. However, as time stretches on, and the dynamic of camp changes, the two begin to rely on each other as everything they know starts to fall apart.
“I kept wondering what it would be like to be a young person dragged into this: trying to have a normal life when your country says you’re an enemy.”
“I knew about the internment of Japanese Americans already, but then I found references to the imprisonment of German Americans, too, which is something I had no idea happened,” says Hesse. “Once I started reading about this particular camp in Texas — Crystal City, the only internment camp to imprison both Japanese American and German American families — I couldn’t stop. I kept wondering what it would be like to be a young person dragged into this: trying to have a normal life when your country says you’re an enemy.”
The War Outside is historical fiction, set in the not-too-distant past. However, Hesse says the story in the book parallels current events happening right now in modern America.
“After I’d been working on The War Outside for a few months, the current White House started talking about travel bans and holding ICE raids,” she said. “The country was having very real discussions about what made someone an American. I kept thinking, ‘We’ve had these conversations before.’ We had these exact conversations in 1941, and then we imprisoned more than a hundred thousand people.”
It’s a heavy conversation to have, and Hesse teases that the book does not shy away from the gravity of the moment.
“[The book] will break your heart,” says Hesse.
The War Outside doesn’t hit bookshelves until Fall 2018, but Mashable has an exclusive peek at the book. Check out an exclusive reveal of the book’s cover as well as a chapter preview from The War Outside below.
The War Outside
This is just a school. This is just an American flag, poking out of the ground in front of what is just a brick building, and this could be anywhere, really. Except it’s not.
“You look darling,” Chieko says, clucking approvingly at my rose seersucker dress.
Chieko lives two Victory Huts down from us, and I met her last week, a few days after my family arrived, at the mess hall. “It’s Chinese rice,” she said, watching me try to make sense of the strange texture. “They don’t know that there’s a difference.”
Chieko plays tennis back home in San Francisco, she told me. And she has all the Glenn Miller records, and her father owns a film projector which, she explained when we met, is used once a week to screen movies outside. The camp employees choose—Westerns, musicals—and keep track of which we like. I learned this at my first movie night, when a guard with blond hair and freckles told his superior that my row yawned six times during Dancing Pirate. Nobody yawned during the newsreel that came before it. Edited propaganda, maybe, but it was still a sudden sharp taste of the outside world.
“Tell your sister to walk closer with us,” Chieko says. “It looks bad, her being back there all by herself like she couldn’t find anyone to be friends with.”
Chieko is exactly the right kind of friend for me to have here. She lent me a pair of anklets with pink trim because they complemented my dress. She’s been here since the beginning of summer; she knows everything about the camp. I should be so grateful to be friends with Chieko.
“Toshi, come walk with us.”
My sister can hold a grudge, and she hasn’t forgiven me for slapping her. Every night we’ve been here she’s dragged her cot away from mine to sleep next to our parents in the next room. So instead of walking to the washrooms with Toshiko in the morning, I walk with Chieko, who knocks on my window before it’s even light. Someone is always there before us, holding their piece of cardboard to use as a privacy screen. It will feel normal, Papa told me the first day, when I didn’t know about the cardboard and my mother and I took turns holding our skirts wide to block each other’s stalls. It will never, I thought. A week later, I check the latrine for crickets, and I urinate behind cardboard, but I tell myself every time that it’s not normal.
The school is one-story, redbrick, shaped like a U. In the middle of the U is a courtyard with a small playing field, and on the other side of the courtyard, facing the U, is one of the guard towers. As we walk past it I hear the sound of a whistle. Not angry like a police whistle, but friendly. The three of us look around.
“Good luck!” a voice calls.
I’ve now turned in a full circle looking for the source of the whistle and the voice.
“Up here.” The guard leans out of the tower so we can see him. “Here, catch.” A handful of small square things flutter down. Chewing gum, wrapped in waxy paper. Chieko shrieks and covers her head. “Sorry it’s not Wrigley,” the guard says. “Wrigley is shipped away for soldiers.”
He’s young. Wavy blond hair bleached from the sun, tanned skin with freckles across his nose, the same guard who was observing me at movie night. Ken’s age. I wonder how he managed to get this job, guarding us, when so many of the men his age are off fighting. Most of the guards here are older than my father. Sagging, slow, unfit for combat duty.
“Thanks,” I call back cautiously, wondering if he should be talking to me.
“What?” He shifts his body so his right side instead of his left is facing us, and leans out of the tower. “Sorry, I’m a little—in this ear I can’t—what?” He cups his hand over his right ear.
So that’s why he’s here instead of somewhere in Europe or the Pacific. He couldn’t pass the hearing test. Ken has perfect hearing. Ken and his stupid perfect hearing.
“I said, thanks,” I yell, making sure to enunciate my words. “But are you sure that’s—” And then I don’t know how to finish my sentence. Is that legal? I want to ask. Is that appropriate, for you to be throwing us chewing gum? Instead, I notice a black-and-white logo affixed to the side of his helmet. “Is that an M&O Cigars sticker?”
“It sure isn’t Elitch Gardens.” He grins. “Who do you go for in the Denver tournament?”
“Baseball isn’t really my fav—wait, how did you know I was from Denver?”
“I heard you, last night at the movies. I am, too. Well, when I was a kid. Do you think we’ll get a pro team soon?”
“My brother says no,” I call up.
“I’d take that wager.”
Who are you rooting for? Let’s meet at Merchant’s Park. I heard the Nisei All-Star team might visit next year.
I wasn’t lying to the guard, I never followed baseball; I could not care less whether Denver ever got a professional team. But I overheard a hundred versions of this conversation between the boys at home: Japanese boys who took me to Nisei socials, white boys who sat next to me in school. I ignored a hundred versions of this conversation, because I didn’t realize I might never get to hear them again. Now, I rack my brain for anything to say about baseball, anything to keep me in a normal conversation about normal things from home.
Chieko nudges my shoulder. “We’re late.”
“The Cigars,” I say hurriedly. “Obviously, I’d root for the Cigars over Elitch Gardens. But the Grizzlies over everyone. And thanks for the chewing gum.”
“Thanks, Mike,” I say, as the bell rings and Chieko pulls me toward the school, where dozens of others swarm into the building.
“Where are all the German kids?” I whisper as we walk through the double front doors, elbowing past a cluster of younger boys, finding the right hallway for Toshiko to turn down.
“Hmm?” Chieko looks for our own room number in a corridor of black-haired students.
“The German kids. Do they have a different entrance?”
“Come on, let’s get inside and get good seats.” She pulls my arm, maneuvering me into the classroom she’s decided is ours. Inside, she waves to some of the people she knows, promising to introduce me later but unwilling to commit to a desk until she’s made a predatory lap around the room. I know how this is played, how to choose the right seat and say the right things. I’m trying, here in Crystal City. I’m trying hard.
“What about those seats?” I point to a row with only one other girl in it. Close enough to the back to avoid seeming too eager, but not the very back row, which should be reserved for the boys to pass us notes. This was the row the popular girls would have sat in at my school, the row it took me years to sit in.
Chieko sees who the other girl is and makes a strangled, disapproving noise, shaking her head no. “Why not?” I ask.
She’s a repat, she mouths. She might leave soon.
“What are you talking about?”
She grabs my elbow again, steering me to a corner where the girl won’t overhear us. “Her family volunteered to go back on one of the ships to Japan.”
“There are no ships going to Japan.”
“The government wants to bring the American soldiers home. So families here, they can volunteer to be repatriated back to Japan. An exchange.” Chieko looks impatiently over my shoulder, watching the seats fill up.
“We aren’t soldiers—why would the Japanese government accept us? Why would we volunteer?” The thought bothers me. “Are the Americans making her leave? Isn’t she American?”
“Can you ask me this later?” Chieko says. But the conversation has already taken too long. No empty rows are left, and now we’re going to have to sit next to the repatriating girl. Chieko sighs.
Sorry, I mouth but I can’t stop thinking about how she said go back, when you can’t go back to a place you’ve never been.
Our teacher, Miss Goodwin, is younger than I expected, with clothing and makeup nicer than Crystal City requires. She gestures to a box of textbooks and it’s not until the last of us has collected our books that the classroom door bangs open, and all of us turn to stare.
A sunburned white girl with frizzy hair. The girl who documented our arrival in her book.
“Yes?” Miss Goodwin asks, because the girl is still standing there clutching her books to her chest and hasn’t said a thing. The boy behind me starts to laugh; a second later more join in.
The girl blushes, reaching into the pocket of her skirt for a folded piece of paper. “I’m sorry I’m not on time. They didn’t believe I was supposed to be in this school,” she says, handing the note to Miss Goodwin. “But I am. Supposed to be here.”
“Margot Krukow,” Miss Goodwin says, handing the note back. “Take any empty seat.”
I don’t know if she doesn’t hear the other students whispering as she walks down the aisle, or if she’s very good at pretending. Her eyes are dark gray and they’re hard to read.
Chieko told me yesterday that the Nikkei community in California was so big that her school was almost all Japanese students. Mine wasn’t. I have been the student that Margot is now, walking down the aisle while other students laugh under their breath. I have worked on ignoring the whispers. Even though I hated that she wrote in her notebook about my incoming train, even if her father is a Nazi, I have been that student enough to feel like I should smile at Margot now, as she holds her books tighter and searches for a seat.
I have also been that student enough to decide not to smile now, to instead feel myself tense as she walks closer. Next to me, Chieko does the same, willing Margot to choose a different row. We don’t need to be the row with the Nazi girl on our first day.
But there are no other seats. Thanks to my mistake earlier, the empty one is next to me.
“You dropped these.”
She’s talking to me, touching my hand to get my attention. Her fingers are rough and calloused. I turn to tell her she can keep it, whatever it is, my pencil or book cover, because as long as her hand is on mine, people are whispering about me, too.
“You dropped these last week so I brought them for you,” she says.
“That’s a little strange.” Chieko laughs, to break the tension in the room. I make myself laugh, too, until Margot turns back to her own desk.
Except it’s not a pencil, what she leaves on my desk. It’s a bunch of lilies. Made of silk, but for a minute when I see them on my desk, blue and soft, and I see the way Margot handles them, like they are the most precious thing she’ll ever touch, I forget that they’re not real.
Haruko remembers things wrong. She told you what she wished was true. I didn’t put the flowers on her desk. That would have meant that I brought them to school, expecting to see her. That doesn’t make any sense. I didn’t expect to see her. I didn’t put my hand on her hand and say, You dropped these. I never would have. I was careful to barely look in her direction.
I think Haruko prefers her version because it makes it seem like she had no choice in the matter. Like I forced myself into her life.
I did have the flowers. That part was true. I had them pressed between the pages of my book, but she didn’t see them until later, much later. She said, They were my mother’s. She said, You can keep them to remember me.
I kept them.
I know this correction seems like it’s a small difference. It’s a big difference. I know the way I am telling these stories seems mundane and boring. Horror grows out of mundanity. If you’re paying attention, it always starts small. We all tell the versions we wish were true.
None of this matters anyway. Whether I tried to give her the flowers then or later. She doesn’t know my version of the story; she’ll never know it. She can remember things however she wants.
But it’s a big difference. You can’t change endings by going back and changing beginnings.