The BookBrowse Review

Published May 15, 2019

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The Last Year of the War
The Last Year of the War
by Susan Meissner

Hardcover (19 Mar 2019), 400 pages.
Publisher: Berkley Books
ISBN-13: 9780451492159

From the acclaimed author of Secrets of a Charmed Life and As Bright as Heaven comes a novel about a German American teenager whose life changes forever when her immigrant family is sent to an internment camp during World War II.

Elise Sontag is a typical Iowa fourteen-year-old in 1943--aware of the war but distanced from its reach. Then her father, a legal U.S. resident for nearly two decades, is suddenly arrested on suspicion of being a Nazi sympathizer. The family is sent to an internment camp in Texas, where, behind the armed guards and barbed wire, Elise feels stripped of everything beloved and familiar, including her own identity.

The only thing that makes the camp bearable is meeting fellow internee Mariko Inoue, a Japanese-American teen from Los Angeles, whose friendship empowers Elise to believe the life she knew before the war will again be hers. Together in the desert wilderness, Elise and Mariko hold tight the dream of being young American women with a future beyond the fences.

But when the Sontag family is exchanged for American prisoners behind enemy lines in Germany, Elise will face head-on the person the war desires to make of her. In that devastating crucible she must discover if she has the will to rise above prejudice and hatred and re-claim her own destiny, or disappear into the image others have cast upon her.

The Last Year of the War tells a little-known story of World War II with great resonance for our own times and challenges the very notion of who we are when who we've always been is called into question.


Los Angeles, 2010

I've a thief to thank for finding the one person I need to see before I die.

If Agnes hadn't slipped her way into my mind to steal from it willy-nilly, I wouldn't have started to forget things, and Teddy wouldn't have given me the iPad for my birthday so that I could have my calendar and addresses and photos all in one place, and without the iPad, I wouldn't have known there is a way to look for someone missing from your life for six decades.

It's been a very long while, more years than I care to count, since I've spoken Mariko's name aloud to anyone. And yet, from the moment I found out Agnes is not only here to stay but here to take, my childhood friend has been steadily on my mind, having emerged from that quiet corner where the longest-held memories reside. It's these oldest and dearest of my recollections that presently seem to be the hardest for Agnes to filch, but I know the day is coming when she'll find every moment I've ever had. The thief will uncover those ancient memories—the good ones and the bad—and she will take them, as gently as dusk swallows daylight. Right now, however, my memories of Mariko are still mine.

I've been told by my doctor that this Alzheimer's I've got will eventually kill me.

It is so strange to be diagnosed with a fatal disease and not feel sick. What I feel is that I've been saddled with a sticky-fingered houseguest who is slowly and sweetly taking everything of mine for her own. I can't get rid of her, the doctor assured me, and I can't outwit her. I've named my diagnosis after a girl at my junior high school in Davenport—Agnes Finster—who was forever taking things that didn't belong to her. My own Agnes will be the death of me; I know this. But not today.

Today I am sitting at LAX at a Delta gate waiting to board a plane. I have written Mariko's name—first, last, and married surname—and her daughter's name in felt-tip on the inside of my left wrist, and Ritz-Carlton, San Francisco on the inside of the right one, just in case I forget why I'm at the airport with a carry-on bag at my feet. Agnes is adept at seizing little moments of my day, and when she does, she takes control of my mouth and then says the most ridiculous things, some of which I can remember when I'm me again and some that I can't. Yesterday she asked the mailman where the children were. For heaven's sake. Pamela and Teddy are not children anymore. They are both married. Retired. They have gray hair.

I feel badly that Pamela and Teddy don't know about this trip I am taking, but I couldn't tell them. They wouldn't have allowed me to go. Not alone. Maybe not at all. They don't know about Mariko, and they don't know about Agnes, either, but I believe they suspect something is up with me. I have seen it in the way they look at me and more so in the way they look at each other. They are wondering whether it's time to move me out of my home of sixty-three years, perhaps into one of their homes. Or maybe to a facility of some kind. A nice one, they would say. But still. A facility. They are thinking the iPad that Teddy gave me will reveal whether my recent trouble with remembering routine minutiae and even calling to mind how many grandchildren I have is more than just the simple forgetfulness of an eighty-one-year-old woman. I'm not the only one using the iPad. I think they are using it, too, to gauge my faculties by watching how I use it or by seeing if I remember that I have it at all.

Pamela convinced me to surrender the keys to my car five months ago, after I had trouble finding my way home from the supermarket. Or maybe it was five weeks ago. I can't recall at the moment. I don't have the keys; I know that. And my garage is empty. I had to take a cab for that doctor's appointment where I learned the truth, though Pamela would have taken me. I had a feeling I knew what the doctor would tell me, and I wanted to hear it alone. I wrote my address on the bottom of my shoe to make sure I could tell the cab driver on the return trip where to take me. Agnes delights in dancing away with my address, like a devious child, and then giving it back to me hours later.

Full Excerpt

Excerpted from The Last Year of the War by Susan Meissner. Copyright © 2019 by Susan Meissner. Excerpted by permission of Berkley Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!

  1. The Last Year of the War is a work of historical fiction, but the internment camp at Crystal City was a real place where families just like Elise Sontag's were detained and then repatriated in prisoner exchanges. How do you feel about what happened during World War II to German Americans like Elise's family? Was such an action justifiable in a time of war? Why or why not?
  2. What do you think it was like for Elise, going from milk shakes at the local diner in Davenport to living off bread crumbs to survive in Stuttgart after the war? What about her character do you think allowed her to cope with those changes?
  3. Was Elise's father right to volunteer for Crystal City, knowing that by doing so he and his family might possibly be repatriated?
  4. Elise's father said the only thing he could do to stand up against the Nazi regime was to make faulty fuses. Was he right? What would you have done?
  5. Elise seemed changed by the experience in the alley with the two Frenchmen. How do you think it changed her, and why?
  6. Elise, because of her German heritage, struggles in Chapter 22 to understand how the German military could have been so inhumanely cruel to the prisoners in the concentration camps. She says to the reader, "I was beginning to understand that it was a person's choices that defined his or her identity and not the other way around." Do you agree that our choices say more about who we are than anything else? How does a person's nationality figure into his or her identity?
  7. What does it mean to you to be a patriot? What do you think it meant to Elise? She tells the reader in Chapter 23, "The land of my childhood mattered to me, maybe because it was where my life began. I felt a part of that land somehow, just as Papa's heart was tied to the land of his birth. It was the land he loved, not so much the people, because people can change. People can be good and people can be monsters." Does the land of your childhood matter to you? Why or why not?
  8. Has The Last Year of the War prompted you to consider the way in which you see people from other nations?
  9. Was Ralph a good friend to Elise? Do you think he had his own reasons for marrying her? Did you like him as a person? Why or why not?
  10. If you had been in Elise's position, would you have married Ralph? Did she make a wise choice or a foolish one?
  11. Why do you think Elise wanted to return to America and stay with Hugh's family, even though they were difficult in some ways? Do you think she felt her own family was broken somehow by their experience? Do you think she needed to be needed?
  12. What do you think were the reasons Mariko's friendship had such an impact on Elise? Can you relate? Did you have a friend like this growing up? How are we shaped by our friendships when we're young?
  13. Do you think Elise would have ended up being a different person if she hadn't met Mariko? If so, how?
  14. Mariko says from her deathbed that because of her, she and Elise were lost to each other. She laments that had she made different choices, she and Elise could have stayed friends. Elise assures Mariko that they did remain friends. Did they? Of Mariko, Elise tells the reader, "She remained in my heart and I in hers, all these years." What was Elise saying? Do you think it's possible to retain a friendship when you are parted from that friend?
  15. Elise describes her Alzheimer's as a sticky-fingered houseguest named Agnes who is stealing from her. What is Agnes taking from Elise? How does this predicament tie into the rest of the story?


Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Berkley Books. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.

A touching work of historical fiction exploring the relationship between two teenagers confined to an American internment camp during World War II.

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36 out of 37 First Impression reviewers gave Susan Meissner's The Last Year of the War four or five stars, for an overall rating of 4.6.

What it's about:
The Last Year of the War follows the life of Elise Sontag and her family. When Elise's father is arrested by the FBI as an enemy alien during World War II, their peaceful life in Davenport, Iowa is disrupted. Poverty and uncertainty follow the family as they are separated from each other, reunited in an internment camp in Texas, and finally repatriated to Germany, where Allied pilots were still dropping bombs. The story is also about the friendship that arises between Elise and Mariko, a Japanese internee at the same camp in Texas. Sixty years later, at the age of 77, Elise has been diagnosed with Alzheimer's. She becomes determined to reconnect with Mariko, who she has not seen or heard from since the camp (Jean L). This moving narrative tells of Elise's search for home, happiness and a sense of identity that keeps her true to herself. This is the story of a woman who stayed the course throughout countless obstacles (Marcia C).

Most thought the book was superb historical fiction:
This was a truly outstanding book about a little-known series of events during WWII. I had no idea that American citizens of German heritage were interned at the same time as those of Japanese heritage. Nor did I know that some of these American citizens were "traded" for American citizens caught behind enemy lines. This excellent historical fiction explains how and why that came to pass, and what happened to two families who were repatriated to their parents' country of origin (Janet H). Meissner has brilliantly taken this dark period in America's history and made it accessible to the mainstream reader (Judi R).

The book touches on many important subjects:
The author explores issues of injustice, the hardships of war and feelings about "place" with an engaging story and well-developed characters (Rosemary C). There are broad themes of friendship, love, identity, family loyalty and the damages of war played out against an important historical backdrop (DeAnn A).

Many readers also compared Elise's situation to that of today's immigrants:
The parallels to present day immigration issues are unmistakable, and caused me to reflect upon the current plight of the DREAMers (Maribeth R). This book sheds light on a part of the immigration debate that most Americans never consider – what happens to ordinary people caught in untenable situations (Becky H).

First Impression reviewers were also impressed with the author's characters:
Meissner's characters embody a sincerity and clarity that makes them come alive to the reader and remain memorable long after the book is read (Marianne L). They seemed so real! I really cared about both young girls, one from a German family and one from a Japanese family, and the friendship they forged in the internment camp (Jean N). Perhaps they should be re-named CAREacters because when you encounter them, you take them into your heart (Maribeth R).

Some felt the last third of the book was a let-down:
The story is a compelling and interesting piece of historical fiction, with a believable account of how an American-born teenager might have reacted. The book is less successful when it verges on soap opera after the war with the drama of Elise's marriages and interactions with her in-laws. The picture of Elise in old age feels contrived and does not add to an otherwise good book (Joy E). For the last 100 pages or so I felt too many serendipitous events took place for it to be a satisfying read (Henry W).

The general consensus, however, was that it was a wonderful, well-paced novel:
Warning: when you begin this volume, ensure your next day or two are unencumbered. It is guaranteed you will not want to stop reading once you begin Meissner's tale of tragedy, hope and reconciliation (Maribeth R). I was completely absorbed by this historically accurate novel about a young German American girl's experience during World War II and after (Rosemary C). Well-written and well-researched, this book is one that should not be missed (Becky H). It was very easy to read, very engaging and definitely hard to put down (Mary D).

Recommended for:
Fans of historical fiction are sure to love this exceptional novel and will add it to their favorites of the year (Judi R). There is much food for discussion here. It would be a great book club pick, especially in light of the internment camps once again being set up in Texas (Marcia C).

Reviewed by BookBrowse First Impression Reviewers

Kirkus Reviews
[Meissner] has created a quietly devastating story that shows how fear and hatred during World War II changed (and even ended) the lives of many innocent Americans.

Publishers Weekly
Vivid historical detail and elegant prose bolster this rewarding story of profound friendship, family, fear, and the pain that arose for American-born children of immigrant parents.

A heartbreaking, thought-provoking work of historical women's fiction.

Author Blurb Kristina McMorris, New York Times bestselling author of Sold on a Monday
A beautifully poignant tale, The Last Year of the War explores the complexities of love, friendship, and the fleeting truths of identity. With vividly drawn characters and ever-elegant prose, Meissner highlights a dark, often-overlooked piece of American history. This timely novel will stay with the reader long after its thoughtful, heartwarming conclusion.

Author Blurb Michelle Gable, New York Times bestselling author of A Paris Apartment
Powerful and at times chillingly contemporary, and it reminds us why we read historical fiction in the first place.

Write your own review

Rated 4 of 5 of 5 by Sandi W.
pleasantly surprised
This being my first read of a Susan Meissner book I have no past references for comparison. However, with that said, I found this book to be very enjoyable. I enjoyed the way she moved her characters back in time to tell their story. I was pleasantly surprised to see she used a town very familiar to me to base the life of one character's childhood. Everything she spoke about still exists and two spots, in particular, have recently been in the news. For me, that brought an extra layer to the novel.

My only problem with the story was I felt that the ending was a bit rushed. I would have liked to have seen a few of the things that were bundled up for closure given a bit more time and detail.

Two elderly women, both with life-threatening illnesses, are brought back together for a final goodbye. After watching them grow up during WWI, both assigned to a detention camp by the United States and then sent back to their families homeland, they lost touch with each other. While following America born Elise, we see her return from a war-torn Germany and settle back into her life in America. Mariko, on the other hand, lived her life in Japan, until her later years of life, when she finally returned to America.

The story of not only war, of America's sad history of putting its own people into detention camps, but of the love and resilience of two young girls, as they navigated their lives as well as they could.

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Kate Rock
Fabulous Read
Susan Meissner writes a brilliantly vivid piece of important and little known history. It combines friendship, love, family during a devastating times and the questions of identity and the important story of immigrant parents that is perfectly placed in that it will be relatable to so many of us no matter what era we were born. Beautiful, poignant and heartwarming. "All the feels!" Highly recommended read.

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Elizabeth of Silver's Reviews
The Last Year of The War - LOVED this book
A friendship made in an internment camp during WWII that lasted only eighteen months, but bonds and memories that lasted a lifetime.

Elise and Mariko met during WWII while attending school in an internment camp for Japanese and German Americans.

We follow both girls through their eighteen months in the camp as well as after even though the friends never saw each other again until they were older adults. They tried to connect with each other, but they never were able to.

At this time in their lives, Elise was suffering from dementia, and she found out Mariko was dying from stage four breast cancer.

Even though Elise had trouble remembering things, she remembered enough to find Mariko, to get on a plane, and to find her before they both were no longer alive.

THE LAST YEAR OF THE WAR is a marvelous history lesson and a testament to enduring friendship and learning lessons and making decisions.

The subject matter wasn't light, but it was wonderful learning more about this time in history. I actually wasn't aware of all that happened. It is very obvious that Ms. Meissner did extensive research and perfectly fit the facts into her book.

If you enjoy historical fiction and Ms. Meissner's books, you will want to make room on your bookshelf for THE LAST YEAR OF THE WAR.

As all of her books, the beautiful flow of Ms. Meissner's writing and her attention to detail make the book a treat to read. 5/5

This book was given to me as an ARC by the publisher via NetGalley in return for an honest review.

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by suzanne leopold
Touching Story & Emotional Journey
Elise Sontag is a German American teenager living in Iowa during World War 2. Her parents have lived in the US for twenty years but are not legal citizens. While the war in Europe is escalating, her father is arrested and charged with being a Nazi sympathizer. Rather than being separated, the entire family is interned at a government camp in Crystal City, Texas.

Life at the camp becomes bearable when Elise befriends Mariko Inoue, a Japanese American girl from California. They become close while spending all their free time together. Together they plan for a future in New York City with a fresh start and new careers. These plans get put on hold when Elise’s family is sent to back to Germany in a prisoner exchange.

The Last Year Of The War by Susan Meissner is an emotional journey of a young girl growing up during wartime. This story is touching as Elise makes one last effort to rekindle a friendship broken by time. I really enjoyed this novel.

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Betty Taylor
Forever Friendships and Family
Susan Meissner’s newest book is about a German American teen girl who meets her best friend in an internment camp during World War II. We meet present day Elise Sontag Dove as an elderly lady who is battling Alzheimer’s. She is determined to find her old friend Japanese American Mariko Inoue. The story then flashes back to 1943 when in the aftermath of the attack on Pearl Harbor Elise’s father is labeled a Nazi sympathizer and her whole family is forced into an internment camp in Texas. Elise is alone and bored until she meets Mariko. After 18 months in the camp, the girls are suddenly torn apart as their parents are repatriated. While Elise was born in the US and doesn’t even speak the German language, her parents were German immigrants. Elise and her family are shipped off to Germany in the last year of the war where they come face to face with the struggle to survive alongside other Germans who are continuing to face food shortages, bombings, destruction and death. Through all this turmoil, Elise hangs on to the dreams she and Mariko had as 18-year-olds to eventually move to New York City together to pursue careers.

But while Elise and Mariko’s friendship is a big part of the story, it is not the primary storyline. That honor belongs to Elise who narrates the book and took me along on her journey as she sadly lost everything, as she painfully matured, and as she decisively took control of her life in an effort to regain what had been taken from her. I loved Elise as she was strong, independent, adaptable, level headed, and loyal.

This beautifully written story is about forever friendships, family bonds, adaptability, bravery, determination and even a little romance. But it also contains great historical information about the internment camps and the families forced into them and about the repatriation program, exchanging interned families for POWs held in Germany and Japan.

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Angela
A unique tale of Internment Camps
Brief Summary: When Elise’s father, a German immigrant, is arrested for suspicions that he is a Nazi Sympathizer, she and her family are moved to an Internment camp in Texas. Here she meets Mariko, a Japanese-American teen, and the two form a unique friendship and plan for a better life after the war. When Elise’s family is sent back to Germany; she faces the realities of WWII head on. This is my second book by Susan Meissner and I was very excited to read it given this premise.

“How do you lose site of who you are when you are accused of something you are not?”

Highlights: Elise is a resilient “beyond her years wise” narrator and I loved seeing her grow up. Her narrative of the experience of being unjustly torn from the life she knew as an American teenager in Iowa is raw and so real. I was so interested in this book because the subject on internment camps is rarely found in historical fiction. Certainly, it is not a good part of American history but I found the glimpse of Elise’s experience fascinating. As much as I loved this novel, it did move slowly and I wasn’t totally sucked in until she went to the camp, then her story became a page turner; especially upon her return to war torn Germany. I also loved how the past and present storylines come together.

What makes this book unique?: The internment camp story premise of the experiences of German and Japanese Americans; this is not your ordinary WWII story or your typical narrator.

Explanation of Rating: 5/5 It’s such a unique story with an unforgettable heroine. When I wasn’t reading this I couldn’t get Elise out of my mind. The stigma and unjust treatment of the German and Japanese Americans will still resonate with minorities today.

Favorite Quotes: “Don’t lose site of who you are Elise. Don’t give in to anger and bitterness. But we did nothing wrong. Sometimes it’s not about right and wrong but now and later. Right now, we are having to put up with a difficult situation that we don’t deserve and it’s not right. But later, when the war is over, we’ll remember that we didn’t let it break us.” This is how they coped; true resilience.

Reese Witherspoon, if you are reading this it would be a great future book club pick! This is a must read for historical fiction fans, book clubs, and social justice enthusiasts.

Thank you to Berkley through BookBrowse for an ARC of this novel in exchange for an honest review

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Carol T
I couldn't put it down! An excellent rendering of a little known fact - German-American internment. Elise and Mariko are so real that they could live next door. I'm off to learn more. Thanks to Berkley and Read It Forward for the ARC.

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Barbara G. (Dallas, GA)
The Last Year of the War
This is perhaps the best Historical Fiction book I have read. It tells the story of two young girls who, because of family nationalities, end up in an internment camp in Texas. It continues to follow their lives until they meet up decades later.
The writing in this selection is powerful and brings to life the characters and settings making the reader truly feel as if they were in the midst of the story.
It is clear that the author did a lot of research into this time period of the camps that is rarely written about or studied in The United States.

There are strong themes of family, friendship and loyalty throughout the book.
I highly recommend this book to any reader who enjoys a great interesting and informative read.


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The Internment of Japanese, German and Italian-Americans During WWII

Overhead shot of Crystal City Internment Camp near Crystal City, TexasIn The Last Year of the War by Susan Meissner, the novel's main character is a child of German descent confined to the Crystal City internment camp during World War II, and later repatriated with her family to Germany. Many of us are aware of the exclusion, removal and detention of 120,000 people of Japanese heritage that occurred as the country entered WWII. Less familiar to most are the proceedings the government took against those of German and Italian birth.

The groundwork for action against foreign-born individuals actually began in the mid-1930s, as part of J. Edgar Hoover's campaigns against communism and Nazism. Under his direction, the FBI developed a list of individuals, referred to as the Custodial Detention Index or the ABC List, ranking people on the basis of their perceived risk, taking into account things like membership in suspect groups, magazine and newspaper subscriptions, overseas visits and tips from anonymous informants. By 1939, the FBI claimed they were monitoring more than 10 million people that they considered threats to American security or values.

This paranoia was not restricted to the FBI; by June 1939, Congress was discussing the establishment of concentration camps for those they considered political extremists, and several anti-alien and anti-sedition laws were passed at the state level. Most legislation relied on the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 as a basis, which gives the president the power to apprehend, restrain and remove resident enemy aliens during times of war or national emergency. (Although amended over the years, the 1798 law remains on the books; both George W. Bush and Barack Obama used this same act to imprison those suspected of terrorism.) In 1940, the United States passed the Alien Registration Act, requiring the registration and fingerprinting of all resident aliens (about 4.9 million people).

The round-up of people of German and Italian birth living in the United States began December 8, 1941, three days before the United States declared war on the Axis powers. These individuals (many of whom were naturalized US citizens) were subjected to an Alien Enemy Hearing Board, held in each judicial district across the country. The board was comprised of three civilian members, one of whom was an attorney, plus representatives of the local district attorney's office, the INS (Immigration and Naturalization Service) and the FBI; the person being investigated was permitted no legal counsel. They could expect one of three verdicts: release, parole or incarceration for the duration of the war. Ultimately, nearly 15,000 German and Italian individuals were confined in the United States throughout WWII. (Some proposed restrictions on all those of German heritage, but that was considered untenable; there were 1.2 million people of German birth in the US by 1940.) Generally, just males were restricted, but frequently the rest of the family would voluntarily accompany the accused, as the incarceration of the head of the household usually left the family without a means of support.

The US government's concern about the loyalties of those of Japanese, German or Italian birth wasn't limited to people living in the country; Hoover's list extended to those in Latin American nations as well. At the FBI's insistence, some 3,000 people from Central America, South America and Caribbean countries were stripped of their citizenship, declared illegal aliens and deported to one of 20 US detention centers

There's speculation that in addition to simply being concerned about the country's safety, another goal of incarcerating German, Italian and Japanese citizens was to create a pool of people that could be swapped for American POWs, and indeed thousands were returned to their country of origin (taking their American-born children with them). The United States used these individuals to barter for the release first of government employees and diplomats, and later severely wounded US soldiers and other citizens. Four large-scale exchange operations took place involving Crystal City inhabitants: approximately 2,000 Japanese were "repatriated" in June 1942 and September 1943, 634 Germans and their children were exchanged in February 1944, and another 428 Germans were traded in February 1945.

by Kim Kovacs

Crystal City Internment Camp, courtesy of Texas Historical Commission

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