One of my bookish goals for 2018 was to read more historical fiction—a genre I typically do not pick up. And while 12 of my 272 books read have been historical fiction, I’ve generally been in a state of meh about them. When I read the premise for THE WAR OUTSIDE, I was about 75 percent sure I would enjoy it. I did not think it would knock me off my feet with its lyrical brilliance, vivid storyline, and heart wrenching ending.
Let’s just say, if all historical fiction was like this book, it’d be my most-read genre.
The 411: Welcome to Crystal City, Texas, where supposed “enemies” of the U.S. government are kept in an isolated commune. This particular internment camp houses both German and Japanese families—the only one of its kind. And our two protagonists come from both sides:
For 17-year-old Haruko, arrival in Crystal City is the chance to reunite her mother and sister with her father, who was placed there after being accused suspicious activity at work. German-American Margot and her family originally settled in Iowa (holla!) but were sent to Texas after her father attends a meeting for the American Nazi party, seemingly under completely innocent motives. These two would have no reason to interact, let alone get along. Despite the immense odds and the war outside, Margot and Haruko form an inseparable bond that changes the course of their lives.
The setting is World War II, but this story felt entirely too real. You can’t help but make connections with today’s current political climate. I apologize if this feels too partisan, but there a few things that really stuck out to me:
(Note, these quotations come from an uncorrected proof and may be changed for publication.)
In regards to immigration, this quote in particular broke my heart:
“We decided we would come here and we would learn how many original colonies there were, and who wrote the Declaration of Independence. And for what? So they could decide we would never be American enough for them, and put us in here?”
After the 2016 election, John Oliver begged on his show, Last Week Tonight, to keep reminding ourselves that “this is not normal.” Because for those of us who are not currently or have the potential to be affected by this administration, it would be very easy to stop caring. If you haven’t watched that episode, it’s brilliant and I highly recommend, and this quote from Ken, Haruko’s brother, made me think of his words immediately,
“I don’t want you to ever forget where you are. You are a prisoner here. I don’t care if you have a new friend, or if there’s a school newspaper, of 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.”
Now let’s get to the friendship between Haruko and Margot: it’s beautiful. Their friendship is deep, transcends cultural barriers, and does not define their relationship along platonic or romantic lines. I know that this kind of storytelling is infuriating for some, but I always enjoy it when a writer lets a bond speak for itself without definition. My personal interpretation is that their relationship had romantic undertones in the small (and big) ways they defended each other, talked about the other, and in those rare little confessions of how they were feeling.
I wish I could speak about the ending because it also made my poor little heart burst. It didn’t so much as make my jaw drop, but restore some of my faith in the human race. I’m very picky with my five star ratings and just can’t do it for this one but it’s so dang close. Literally like a 4.95.
MY RATING: ✰✰✰✰.95
RECOMMENDED READING: The Bear & the Nightingale, The Girl in the Tower by Katherine Arden
Thank you to The Novl/LBYR for my galley, which I received as part of the Novl Book Squad in exchange for an honest review. THE WAR OUTSIDE is available September 25, 2018.