Thursday, December 01, 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 below.

Rating 4.5/5

Camp Nine tour stops

Monday, October 31st: Broken Teepee
Tuesday, November 1st: Picky Girl
Wednesday, November 2nd: Literature and a Lens
Thursday, November 3rd: Wordsmithonia
Friday, November 4th: Melody & Words
Monday, November 7th: Booksie’s Blog
Tuesday, November 8th: Lit and Life
Wednesday, November 9th: Write Meg
Thursday, November 10th: Juggling Life
Monday, November 14th: BookNAround
Tuesday, November 15th: Savvy Verse and Wit
Wednesday, November 16th: Books Like Breathing
Thursday, November 17th: A Bookish Affair
Monday, November 21st: For the love of books
Tuesday, November 22nd: Buried in Print
Wednesday, November 23rd: The Lost Entwife
Monday, November 28th: In the Next Room
Tuesday, November 29th: Diary of an Eccentric
Thursday, December 1st: The Adventures of an Intrepid Reader


  1. I really enjoyed this one as well. Another book dealing with internment camps in the US for the Japanese was Tallgrass by Sandra Dallas, which I also loved reading. I'd recommend that. It is very similar to Camp Nine, though it is told from a young girl's perspective rather than a look back by a girl growing up at that time.

    I'd love to read about other camps in other countries...during WWII if you find any.

  2. I reviewed Weedflowr by Cynthia Kadohata, which also takes place in an interment camp. This is a strange piece of US history and one that used to be not very well known by most US citizens. I'll have to give this one a try.

  3. Seems like I missed out by not joining the tour this time. Alas, time is my problem.

  4. I don't know if you ever liked the original star trek, but you should read the biography written by George Takei (sulu) there is quite a bit about him and his family being made to be in one of those camps. It was one of the best bio's I"ve ever read.

  5. I have read quite a lot about this book, and really want to get the chance to read it. It sounds like a story that doesn't get that much play, and I am glad to hear that you were so enthralled with it. I am intrigued by your analysis, and can't wait to read this one for myself!

  6. Hi DesLily - George Takei and his family were actually at the camp at Rohwer, Arkansas, which is the camp that inspired Camp Nine. He's a great guy, and has been back to visit the site. Vivienne Schiffer

  7. It looks like my comment from earlier didn't get posted, so I'll try again. I just wanted to thank everyone for reading Camp Nine, and thank Intrepid Reader for such great comments! If anyone is interested in this subject, I'm also directing a documentary about the Rohwer camp, which we hope will be finished at the end of 2012. So please keep a lookout for it. Vivienne

  8. There was an internment camp in the city that I live in, too, but I don't think most residents are aware of that (or want to be reminded of it). And the Japanese were not the only group to be treated unjustly in that way in Canada. For shame. I'm so glad that Camp Nine brings this back onto the table. What great passages you've quoted too!

  9. What a great write up of this book. I am sorry not to have joined the book tour & read it, but have added it to my notebook.

    It is I think easy to overlook the facts that there were those of Japanese, Italian & German descent or heritage that had lived in the Allied Countries for years leading up to the Second World War. They felt part of that allied Country until they were interned. Here in the UK we interned those of German & Italian heritage. There was a camp on the Isle of Man & a book written about the subject, called Behind the wire fence. Some chose to change their surname, to sound more British, but equally, some early migrants did that anyway, with the thought new country, new name.

    Great read. Off now to investigate the book tour.

  10. Sounds like a good one, and I had nto come across it before :)

  11. I've read a lot of autobiographical stuff on Japanese Internment, but not a novel yet. I think I'll look for this one. :)

  12. I think many of us enjoy books set against the backdrop of war. It really puts the spotlight on what it means to be human and to survive. I have requested this book from my library....will be reading it next year! Lovely review.

  13. Staci, I think that is exactly why World War II books hold such fascination.

    Katy, I think I might look for some non-fiction next week.

    Blodeuedd, glad to bring it to your attention.

    Anglers Rest, another one set in the UK is The Welsh Girl by Peter Ho Davies.

    Buried in Print, the internment camps here included Japanese, German and Italian. The other thing is that I think that it happened in both world wars too.

    Thank you Vivienne for a wonderful book, and I didn't know that about George Takei.

    Zibilee, I hope you get a chance to read it.

    DesLily, thanks for the recommendation.

    Man of la Book, I am often left feeling like that when I follow tours, but like you time is an issue and so you just need to pick and choose.

    Candace, I think it is a part of many countries history that they don't like to talk about now.

    Serena, I hope you got some ideas from the books that were mentioned in the comments here.

  14. I'd be interested in learning more about the camps in Australia as well. I'm so glad this book inspired you to look into the history a bit more.

    Thanks for being on the tour Marg!