Emily Joy reviews The War Outside by Monica Hesse

The War Outside by Monica Hesse

The War Outside by Monica Hesse is a historical fiction novel set inside an American internment camp during WWII. It follows the friendship of two young prisoners, Haruko and Margot, as they deal with discrimination, family conflict, and their own growing feelings for each other. 

This book takes a look at a lesser known part of WWII history which is rarely taught in schools, although it should be. In fact, although I knew about Japanese internment and have done some reading about it, I did not know until this book that some Germans living in America were also interned. There’s a lot you could learn from this well-researched novel. 

In Crystal City, a historical internment camp located in Texas, Haruko and Margot live on different sides of the camp, and the Japanese and Germans are both distrustful of the other. Margot and her parents are careful to keep to themselves, not wanting to associate with the Germans who support the Nazi party, and Margot is one of the few German students to attend the federal high school rather than the unaccredited German school. It is there that she meets Haruko. Haruko is suspicious of her father, and worries that he might have helped the Japanese government, and is also concerned for her brother who is a member of the all-Japanese 442nd unit in the American military. 

In the midst of the tension, Margot and Haruko become unlikely friends, talking honestly together about their worries and fears. I loved reading about their relationship as they grew closer, and the trust they developed for each other was very sweet. As they slowly realize that their feelings may not be entirely platonic, the awkwardness between them is very cute, and their dreams for after they leave Crystal City and the apartment they’ll have together are so sweet and lovely. It was easy to root for them. However, their small romance does take a back seat to the other drama happening around camp, especially within their own families.  

The storyline I found most intriguing was actually what happens with Haruko’s brother. As a member of the 442nd unit, he is not present for most of the book, but his absence is felt in a very real way. He also has a very frank discussion with Haruko about his depression, and I found that to be a particularly poignant moment in this novel.

Another thing that I loved was how Margot seems to be coded as autistic. I was a little disappointed that the book never addresses it directly, but it seemed too intentional to be coincidence. I talked about it with my autistic girlfriend, and she agreed. I only wish it had been stated directly in the text so I could say for certain that this was the author’s intention. 

Overall, I thought this book was interesting, and the setting choice is one that I don’t see often in WWII historical fiction, so I appreciated that. However, I did have a few issues, mostly with the ending. I’ll keep this mostly spoiler-free, but by nature of discussing the ending, it will give some things away so please read ahead at your own discretion. 

(Spoiler section begins, highlight to read) I felt like the ending was abrupt, and it honestly feels like the last couple chapters were ripped out. None of the characters get any closure, and, as a reader, I didn’t either. 

 

Both Margot and Haruko seem incredibly out of character, and both of them make such cruel decisions. It was so painful to read the ending, and while I understand what the book was trying to say…. I don’t know if either character is truly justified in her actions. “War makes people do terrible things” doesn’t seem to be applicable to their situations, and it felt unnecessary and forced. 

 

The ending also feels anti-climactic. The relationship that I was rooting for collapsed before it was even acknowledged, which was a real shame. I wouldn’t neccessarily call it queer-baiting, because it was so obviously alluded to, and the feelings themselves were quite clear, but the word ”gay” or “lesbian” was never used. Neither of the girls ever addresses their feelings earnestly, even internally. So that was a disappointment to me. (Spoiler section ends)

I would recommend this book to anyone who likes historical fiction, and wants to explore a different part of WWII. Although it is not a perfect book, the setting, atmosphere, and the characters are excellent. 

Allysse reviews Women’s Barrack by Tereska Torres

Women’s Barracks is a novel by Tereska Torrès. It depicts the lives of a few women and girls who worked for the Free French Forces that existed in London during World War 2. The novel is a sort of collection of snapshots of their lives. It is based upon the journals the author wrote during her time in the Free French Froces. There is no plot per se but only the portraits of those persons trying to live through the war.

Our point of entry in the story is the voice of the narrator who was one of those women, who experienced everything with the rest of the protagonists in the book. However she never really takes any part in any of the actions. She is a constant presence, someone in whom everybody confesses their story and she merely relates them to us, always staying in the background herself, never involved in anything. She is just a witness relating what she saw and heard. It can be easily understood though. The novel was apparently the first pulp novel to candidly address lesbian relationships and the author married at the time might have not want to be associated with the lives of her characters. She even refused its publication in France (where she lived), but later on published her journals there under another title. I haven’t read or even had a look at her journals so I don’t know how much of the novel is based from her observations and reality compared to and how much she created for the novel.

To get back to the characters… they are a mix of women and girls, all of them out of their country with no home and no family. Dynamics soon takes place between them, the older women trying to protect the younger ones, to educate them. It is an extraordinary time – in the sense of out of the ordinary – and as time goes by and the war doesn’t end there is a loss of hope for everyone. War is becoming the everyday life, chaos normal, and the island that is the Free French Forces constitutes the home of those women and girls. They seek confort among each other, security and reassurance in a world that is becoming familiar, filled with people they understand and that understand them.

The author mentions a few “real” lesbians but they are merely in the background of the novel, appearing here and there but never really taking the main place in the novel. However the author describes to us the relationships of other women who sleeps with other women but are not normally lesbians. I actually like how she describe those relationships. For Claude and Ursula for example it is a simple relationship of love/control/fascination. Claude being much older than Ursula she is sort of her teacher that Ursula idolized. As for Claude and Mickey it is pure amusement. Mickey is depicted as a lover, as a woman always having fun and making the most of life. She simply loves anyone regardless of their gender.

I really enjoyed the novel but I have to admit that at first I expected it to be more scandalous. But then, I remember that I am a reader in the 2010’s and that I definitely don’t live in the same cultural environment and experience as people in the 1950’s.

But still, I didn’t find the novel really shocking and to me it is not about the lesbian relationships that happened during World War 2 between the women of the story. It is a story about people who were all lost in some way, seeking comfort and warmth among each other, clinging to what they knew, to what felt familiar and safe. It is also a novel about life trying to keep on as normal in extraordinary circumstances, a world in which games of love still happened. I especially like this quote “There seemed to be only frenzied sexual adventures, promiscuity, or these sad, strange inversions. I wondered unhappily whether love could exist in out upset wartime world, the plain, faithful love between one woman and one man.” because I feel it sums up the novel quite well. In spite of everything all those women are simply looking for love but don’t know how to find it in a world in which your lover could be taken away from you and die at any moment.

Laura Mandanas reviews Fearless by Erin O’Reilly

Fearless by Erin O’Reilly is a work of historical fiction about the brave members of the Auxiliary Transport Authority who ferried planes during World War II. Delivering aircraft from the factories to Royal Air Force stations throughout the United Kingdom, ATA pilots flew in the face of danger on a daily basis. This book follows pilots of the first all women’s ferry pool at Hatfield.

Now, let me tell you: I wanted to like this book. I really did. Who doesn’t love a tale of scrappy lesbian underdogs? And badass, evil-fighting pilots, at that? Alas, it was not to be.

There were too many characters. Waaaaay too many characters. They were “strong” characters, from a variety of social, economic, and cultural backgrounds, but still. Unnecessary. Most cross center stage just once for their introduction, then fade into the background. After 100 pages of this, you just want to skip past it all.

Worse, perhaps, than the glut of characters was when they actually opened their mouths to speak. To call it “stilted” would be a grievous understatement; the writing quality read like highbrow fanfiction. The characterization had potential, but you could tell the work lacked serious editing. Grammatical errors and typos littered the pages, especially towards the end.

The one thing O’Reilly got right was the research — there were great historical details worked in, however awkwardly — but it wasn’t enough to redeem the rest. For me, the preface was more interesting than the actual plot. So if you’re interested, do yourself a favor on this one: skip the story and go straight to the source material.

You’re welcome.