Drama, romance, heartache — such themes are not uncommon in fiction set during World War II, but it’s been a while since a novel detailing many of war’s atrocities affected me so deeply. Though heavy (physically and metaphorically), Kristina McMorris’ Bridge of Scarlet Leaves was an engrossing, beautiful story that swept me away.
Deeply but secretly in love, Maddie Kern and Lane Moritomo are struggling to keep their romance a secret from TJ, Maddie’s older brother — though not because he’ll disapprove of their pairing on racial grounds, as others might. Lifelong best friends, TJ and Lane have been inseparable since childhood; their physical differences — the Kerns are white, the Moritomos Japanese-American — mean nothing. After Lane and Maddie elope, they spend a few blissful days together before reality returns — and hard. Just as they come back to their families in Los Angeles, the world changes forever: Pearl Harbor has been bombed.
Suddenly under suspicion by the friends and neighbors who once respected them, the Moritomos are divided and sent to Manzanar, a relocation camp for Americans of Japanese ancestry living on the West Coast. Bolstered by the patriotism sweeping the U.S., TJ joins the military to fight for their country — both his and Lane’s. And the Moritomos? They just hope to survive, willing an end to prejudice and a war that has changed their lives forever.
Heavily researched without being academic, Bridget of Scarlet Leaves blends entertainment, heartbreak and history into one beautiful package. I was so invested in the characters and story that I read more than 300 pages in an evening — a personal best. By the novel’s close, I didn’t want to say goodbye. They’re the sort of families you root for and think about, forgetting for a moment they didn’t actually exist.
McMorris’ skills shine in Bridge of Scarlet Leaves, which weaves real events, places and people into its cleverly-written, lovely story. As with Vivienne Schiffer’s Camp Nine, the first novel I read pertaining to the internment of Japanese-Americans in World War II, readers can’t help but feel anger and shock over the treatment of men, women and children here on American soil. As I said then, it was necessary to remind myself this was a different time. Tensions were high. Life was tumultuous and uncertain. I would like to believe the decisions made then would not be the ones made now — and I’ll repeat that to myself, anyway.
A book of more than 400 pages might have been a slog without McMorris’ compassionate, multi-layered characters. I felt for Maddie and her plight, knowing the pull of love and the painful duties it demands of us. A talented violist, Maddie’s sacrifices went toe-to-toe with the losses felt by her Japanese husband and in-laws, and I couldn’t help but love this strong, resilient young woman. With her own family in tatters, Maddie wouldn’t let cultural differences divide her from the Moritomos — even with Lane’s mother, the indefagitable Kumiko, acting initially unfriendly and skeptical of her. I loved Lane’s little sister, Emma, and got teary-eyed when she deferred to Maddie as “older sister.” Their relationship was so sweet.
I was so caught up in the women’s stories — and their growing bond — that I occasionally forgot about TJ, Maddie’s brother, as he wound his way through the Pacific during Japanese attacks. His own relationship with Lane, now his brother-in-law, was heartbreaking. As close as brothers, TJ and Lane struggle with unfinished business and hurtful words when they’re both thrown into war. And though Lane is absolutely American, his skin color places him across a chasm during war. As I was reading, I craved resolution for the pair; even more than Lane reuniting with Maddie, I desperately wished he could set things right with TJ. Their friendship and care for one another are handled so well; it’s rare to see male bonds explored in such a tender, sincere way.
Familial duty, loyalty, pride, romance, suffering and loss — all themes explored in Bridge of Scarlet Leaves, which provided many tearful and breathless moments for me. There’s so much to discuss, especially about Kumiko’s own past and pain, that my review could go on forever — but I’m sure you’re ready for a bathroom break. I’ll wrap it up: fans of historical fiction and family dynamics will find a heartbreaking, smart and fast-paced story in McMorris’ wonderful novel. Her author’s note at the conclusion — detailing her research, writing process and personal connections to the narrative — were fascinating, too. Go on and read it.
4.5 out of 5!