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Camp Nine by Vivienne Schiffer

Camp Nine by Vivienne Schiffer is told from the point of view of Cecilia “Chess” Morton as she looks back on her time in Desha County, Arkansas, during the late 1940s when Camp Nine was erected near her childhood home.  As a child, she grew up without a father, but she had a mother who doted on her, though she often butts heads with Chess’ grandfather, who owned half, if not more, of the town, Rook.  Her grandfather controlled much of Chess’ land inheritance and sold a good portion of land, which he deemed useless, to the government for Camp Nine, which he was told would hold German prisoners of war captured during WWII, which was in full swing at the time the story takes place.

Chess is a curious child, but often her inquisitiveness gets shut down by the adults around her who dismiss her desire to know about her family, particularly the feud between her mother and Mr. Ryfle, who tends the grandfather’s land and often makes empty promises about helping Chess’ mother plant her land.  There is a great deal of mystery in the early stages of the novel, including her mother’s past in California and why Camp Nine is being used to house Japanese Americans.  Chess also laments the unspoken code of behavior expected of Blacks, like Ruby Jean who helped raise Chess’ mother.

“‘That river over there is the mightiest river in the world.  It wouldn’t do for there to be just any dirt around here.  The dirt here must have its own strong personality.  It won’t back down to the river.  It won’t back down to men.  You have to understand it and work with it.  Not against it.'”  (Page 121)

Schiffer crafts a narrative that stands apart from other accounts of WWII as it seeks to inject emotion into a situation that many Americans were removed from by hundreds of miles or more.  WWII was fought on distant shores, but its effects were devastating to Americans who soon became objects of suspicion.  However, this story is not just about the internment of Japanese Americans, but of the impact their internment had on the small towns in which their camps were built — kicking up racism and exacerbating classism.  In many ways, Schiffer has developed the setting into an additional character given that its bisected into two halves by the railroad tracks, with the enemy on one side and the townspeople on the other.

Chess’ mother is more progressive than other residents of Rook, but her ideas and actions have farther reaching consequences than she expects.  Schiffer’s characters are engaging and real, and set against the backdrop of this tumultuous time, a young girl is growing into adulthood and realizing that the world is vastly more complicated than she expected.  Camp Nine is captivating and raises questions about perception:  What we think of ourselves when faced with family secrets?  How we’d react in the face of injustice?

I’d consider this similar to Tallgrass by Sandra Dallas.

About the Author:

Vivienne Schiffer grew up in the Arkansas Delta town of Rohwer, site of the Rohwer Relocation Center, on which Camp Nine is based. She is an attorney and has practiced law for twenty-eight years in Houston, where she lives with her husband Paul and their family. Schiffer is currently at work on her second novel.

To visit the other stops on the TLC Book Tour, please click the icon at the right.

This is my 68th book for the 2011 New Authors Reading Challenge.

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  • I hadn’t even thought of the impact an internment camp would have had on a community or the individuals living in that community. I wonder sometimes how I would have reacted. I think about how I HOPE I would react, but you can never know until you’re in that situation.

    • I liked that angle here. Tallgrass is another good one on this topic. I think we all think we know how we’d react, but we really cannot know until we are there.

  • I’m definitely reading this one. I really enjoyed Tallgrass so I already know that this will make an impression on me. I love the way you write…wonderful review!

    • Thanks for the compliment. Some days I like how I write, but other days I think my reviews suck.

  • It is amazing that people were so oblivious to what was going on right here in the US, though the distance from most populated areas does have a lot to do with it I’m sure.

    I’m really looking forward to reading this one myself. It sound like a great book!

    Thanks for being on the tour Serena.

    • It amazes me every time I read one of these that these people didn’t see this as wrong, but I guess its understandable to a certain degree that the Japanese had bombed the United States…What amazes me more is the ignorance of the concentration camps in Germany, etc.

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  • I loved TALLGRASS and I’m really looking forward to reading CAMP NINE. I’m so glad to see how much you liked it.

    • You’ll love this one, if you liked TallGrass.

  • I really enjoyed TALL GRASS so this might be a good book for me. It does sound like it would make for a fascinating book club pick! Great review.

    • Julie: If you enjoyed TallGrass, you’ll enjoy this one for sure. It would make a great book club selection.

  • Vivienne Schiffer

    Hi, everyone – so sorry I was out of touch for the middle of the day. Ti, I hope you do read it. It’s interesting that the generation that was in the incarceration camps during World War II wouldn’t talk about it with their families either. And it’s the younger generation that wants to have the dialogue. If you do read Camp Nine, please let me know if you think it does the subject justice. And Audra, please do read it! And if you like it, please recommend it to your friends. Word of mouth is so important in getting people to read books these days!
    Thanks so much again to Serena, and to everyone for your interest. I hope you enjoy Camp Nine.
    Vivienne

  • I so regret not hopping on this tour! This sounds wonderful — my kind of book — so I’m adding to my holiday wishlist because I think I’d love this one!

    • Audra, this is your kind of book. I think you would love it. I wanted it to be longer!

  • Ti

    I’m not sure I could read a book like this. I mean, I certainly could but it would be tough to do. My father’s family was forced to leave Tibet and several of his siblings were put into concentration camps, and were never able to leave. One of them was his sister who was 6 months pregnant. He never talked to me about the incident. I suspect it was too difficult to recall but every time I hear of a book about camps I get a bit twitchy.

    • That must have been devastating. I can see why he would not want to talk about it. I’ve read a bit about Tibet. What happened there was not good…I should say what is still going on is not likely good either.

      This book would not be as hard as you think. I think there is less of a focus on the camp’s bad parts and more on the town and what the camp does to them.

  • Vivienne Schiffer

    The way it’s been described to me from the scholars I’ve talked to is that the sites were chosen to expedite the forced removal – the government didn’t have time to condemn privately owned land, so they used mostly land that was already in federal hands – the exception was Rohwer, part of which was owned by the Farm Security Administration, but much of which had been owned by my grandfather, Joe Gould. I wish he were still alive so I could ask him how it all happened! But in short, the government was looking for the 10 most remote and desolate places in the whole country – and they decided my hometown fit that description perfectly.
    Vivienne

    • I guess that makes the most sense…and it wasn’t on the coast closest to Japan!

  • Vivienne Schiffer

    Thank you Serena! In many areas, the Japanese American community of that time was very insulated, and the same was true of the Arkansas delta of the time. So it was interesting to me how to collision of these two communities would impact them both. I was also interested to learn that at the start of WWII, about 95% of the Japanese Americans lived along the West Coast. So the incarceration experience effected the entire population.
    Vivienne

    • I wonder how California survived when so much of its population was taken away. I know that there were internment camps in Colorado as well. It’s amazing to me how the government decided to just take these people and put them in a completely different area…and how on Earth did they chose these sites?!

  • Vivienne Schiffer

    Hi, Anna, Kathy and Janel – I hope you do read Camp Nine and that you like it. It’s a very personal story for me, as I have met so many people who were in these camps or who had families in the camps. And the whole incident was such an American tragedy which these people lived through with an amazing grace and dignity. The situations in the camps themselves were not all that bad – the Japanese Americans really did take it upon themselves to make the best of it. But it destroyed the community and many individual lives, and those effects still linger today.
    Vivienne Schiffer

    • I can imagine how being completely uprooted would destroy communities and individual lives. I liked how the book demonstrated this, but also the resiliency of the Japanese interned in these camps and how they created their own little communities.

  • The interment camps must have been horrible. It sounds like this book takes an interesting view through the eyes of a child on the outside looking in.

    • This actual paints a different picture of the camps, a view from the outsider — someone who attempted to improve things for the Japanese-Americans, so there are moments in which terrible things happen, but overall camp life is not “horrible.” This is mostly related to the POV you are seeing the camp from.

  • I’ve always been horrified by those camps, but never thought about how they impacted the communities they were in. This sounds like a thought provoking book!

    • It raised a lot of questions, especially regarding race and societal expectations with regard to Blacks and Whites and Japanese-Americans and the Whites and Blacks of the surrounding town. I really enjoyed this one and wished it was longer.

  • I can’t wait to read this book for the tour. It sounds thought provoking, and I’ve read so little about the internment camps that I’m intrigued.

    • I really enjoyed this book.