In tiny Rook, Arkansas, Chess Morton lives with her beautiful and bold mother on a strip of land owned and run by the powerful Morton family. With Chess’ father dead and her mother struggling to maintain a foothold on reality, Chess grows up a lonely but imaginative child without any idea of how her life will soon be changed.
After the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the start of World War II, Japanese Americans — primarily those living on the West Coast — were taken from their homes and interned in camps across the U.S. While the government cited their relocation was for “their own protection” considering the anti-Japanese sentiment spreading across the country, the reality was approximately 110,000 people — innocent people, innocent citizens — were sequestered away from society. In America.
Rook is home to Camp Nine, one such holding center, and it’s there that Chess cannot escape the extremes of life within its walls. When her mother, a brave and caring woman, reaches out to those in the camp and begins to teach classes, Chess meets the Matsui family and their teenage son, David. Racial tensions run hot in Arkansas, and the wars aren’t being waged just on foreign soil. Fires of war are being stoked at home, too.
Vivienne Schiffer’s Camp Nine is a quiet, moving coming-of-age story detailing life at fictionalized Camp Nine, a place teeming with life and culture in the 1940s. In modern times, it’s difficult to believe that places like this actually existed on American soil — but while reading, I had to remember the mayhem that followed the dark days after Sept. 11, 2001. The rampant fear and uncertainty. The chaos and confusion. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, the American people struggled to make sense of the attack and questioned the loyalties of anyone of Japanese descent — the new enemy. Sound familiar?
This is not at all to justify what happened — that would be impossible. I suppose I just had to repeat to myself that it was a different time, a different time.
And this time, indeed, was scary. If Chess wasn’t playing witness to the despair within Camp Nine, she was dealing with the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan in Rook. Growing up with black servants she also considered friends, Chess can’t make sense of the hatred spreading through Rook like a sickness. The military installation of thousands of Japanese Americans nearby was like throwing a match into a powder keg.
What I liked best about Camp Nine, aside from the lovely writing, was the way Schiffer chose to tell us Chess’ story from her adult perspective. Though we don’t know exactly how the story ends, we know that Chess is reflecting upon her early experiences as a married mother herself. We know she remembers these hazy days in Rook clearly, but that doesn’t mean her memories haven’t taken on a soft patina with time. Narrator Chess is wise, thoughtful, intelligent. She recalls moments at Camp Nine with a clarity her young self could not understand. Her narration was very moving.
If you’re looking for a book ripe with action and plot, Camp Nine might not quench your literary thirst. The novel is definitely a character exploration examining family dynamics, race relations, this particular moment in history — and what came after. Though I love historical fiction, this is the first book I’ve read detailing the experiences of Japanese Americans in the U.S. during World War II. The situation was deplorable, and I feel like I’ve gained a new perspective.
Schiffer has crafted a fine-tuned, lyrical and affecting work and doesn’t waste a single word in her narrative. Dropped immediately into Arkansas, readers experience a great progression — a sincere, unexpected journey — with Schiffer’s well-drawn, sympathetic characters. If you like historical fiction and character studies, add it to your wishlist.
4 out of 5!