Camp Nine (book)
|Original Publisher||University of Arkansas Press|
|Original Publication Date||2011|
|Awards||Susannah DeBlack Award, Arkansas Historical Association, 2014|
Coming of age novel set in and around "Camp Nine," a fictionalized Japanese American concentration camp based on Rohwer, narrated by a girl from a prominent white family in the adjacent town whose life is transformed by the camp.
The novel begins in 1965, as an adult Chess Morton, who still lives in Arkansas, awaits the visit of famous blues guitarist David Matsui, whose family she and her mother had known during the war years. As the story begins in the summer of 1942, Chess is twelve years old and lives with her mother, Carrie. Carrie's husband, Walter Morton, Jr., was the only son of Walter Morton, Sr., who more or less runs the entire little town of Rook, Arkansas, but had died of illness a few years back. Carrie, the daughter of poor Italian immigrants, gets on uneasily with her wealthy in-laws. Carrie soon learns that Walter has sold off much of the land that her husband had owned to the U.S. government for what she thinks will be a German POW camp. But as she and Chess see the trains from the West Coast unload, it is apparent that it will be a camp for Japanese Americans.
While the rest of the town tries to ignore the camp, Carrie—who had attended college in California before returning to Arkansas—is drawn to it and soon is teaching art classes there. She drags Chess with her on Saturdays, and Chess soon comes to enjoy her visits as well. Carrie and Chess become close friends with the Matsuis, a family from San Francisco consisting of Issei parents and two sons, the studious Henry whose plans for college have been interrupted—and whom Chess soon develops a crush on—and the mischievous and rebellious David, two years younger. Carrie also reconnects with an old flame, an army colonel stationed at Camp Shelby who suddenly begins making many visits to Camp Nine. But the Matsui family is soon splintered as father Hiroshi is hauled off to Tule Lake after no-no answers on the "loyalty questionnaire," Henry volunteers for the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, and David courts trouble by escaping the camp both to see a local white girl and to learn the blues from a legendary African American musician. Meanwhile, Carrie's efforts to help at the camp and her hiring of Nisei workers on her farm set local tongues wagging. As she observes what's going on around her, Chess learns lessons about love, race, and privilege, some of which don't make sense to her until years later.
Background and Historical Accuracy
Author Vivienne Schiffer grew up in the town of Rohwer, Arkansas, in the shadow of the former camp site. A graduate of the University of Central Arkansas and Tulane Law School, she practiced law in Houston for some twenty-eight years, while raising four children. Meanwhile, her mother, Rosalie Gould, became the mayor of nearby McGehee and emerged as a leading figure in the preservation of the Rohwer site and a keeper of camp related artifacts, particular art objects. Wanting to explore her creative side, Schiffer took a screenwriting course at UCLA, where a professor, Valerie West, encouraged her to write about her family's connection to the Japanese American incarceration story. Though the story of Camp Nine is fictional, Schiffer told Steve Barnes that "the elements of my family history are in the book." Chess is roughly the same age as Gould, and, like Carrie, Gould is the daughter of Italian immigrants who married the son of a local plantation owner. After the publication of Camp Nine by the University of Arkansas Press, Schiffer went on to make a documentary film focusing on Gould and on the aftermath of the incarceration titled Relocation, Arkansas.
Though the novel is generally accurate in its depiction of the incarceration, the author takes some historical liberties in at least two occasions. The Matsuis are from San Francisco, an important plot element in that Carrie bonds with them because she had lived near them when she went to college in California. However nearly all Japanese Americans from San Francisco were sent to the Topaz, Utah, concentration camp, not to Rohwer. Secondly, Carrie and Chess see Hiroshi Matsui being carried out of the camp in handcuffs for giving "no-no" answers to the loyalty questions. While such "no-no boys" were sent to Tule Lake, they were generally sent out as a group and were not handcuffed.
For More Information
Author's website: http://www.vivienneschiffer.com/.
Publisher website: http://www.uapress.com/dd-product/camp-nine/.
Axelrod, Laura. Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Nov. 12, 2012. ["Schiffer's prose is poetic without being pretentious. Camp Nine is a rewarding and enriching book."]
Leber, Michele. Booklist, Nov. 1, 2011, 30. ["A compelling, vivid account of a shameful episode that should not be forgotten."]
Publishers Weekly, Oct. 17, 2011. ["Schiffer immerses readers in the thick bayou air and community tensions."]
- "Acknowledgements," Camp Nine, v–vi; Barnes and... A Conversation with Vivienne Schiffer, May 15, 2015, Arkansas Educational Television Network, accessed on June 2, 2017 at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FFpRobtUBCE.