Book review: ‘Camp Nine’ by Vivienne Schiffer

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!

ISBN: 1557289727 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by TLC Book Tours in exchange for my honest review

13 thoughts on “Book review: ‘Camp Nine’ by Vivienne Schiffer

  1. Did you read The Corner of Bitter and Sweet? Sort of the same type of thing. I really didn’t know much about these camps prior, and was horrified by the idea of them. You do get angry when you think about what has been done to us by other peoples, but we can’t hold others of the same race responsible!


  2. BermudaOnion – even though every character in Camp Nine sprang completely from my imagination, they are all so real to me! I feel like they are people I’ve known my entire life. I hope you get a chance to read Camp Nine and that you feel that you know them too. Vivienne Schiffer


  3. Sandy – Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet is a fantastic novel. I loved it! And the great thing about that backstory is that the hotel, where the belongings were stored in the basement (for what, fifty years?) is really there in Seattle. The whole Japanese American incarceration story is so tragic and moving – it altered the Japanese American community forever. Vivienne Schiffer


  4. Great review! You’ve made me really look forward to reading this book for the tour. If you want to read more about the interment of Japanese Americans, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet is a beautiful book. I’ll link to your review on War Through the Generations.


  5. Pingback: Vivienne Schiffer, author of Camp Nine, on tour November 2011 | TLC Book Tours

  6. I found Chess’ relationship with Emma Jean really interesting to watch because there was obviously a fondness there, alongside an awareness of a certain kind of injustice, alongside a simple unquestioning acceptance of the convenience and protection that she received out of that inequity. It left a lot for the reader to think about.


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