Set during World War II, in Crystal City—one of the very few U.S. internment camps that held both Japanese-American and German-American families—Monica Hesse’s The War Outside is the story of the friendship between Haruko and Margot. The two girls narrate their time in the camp as if talking to an unnamed, unseen journalist researching this dark period in American history, a form, Hesse says, that relates to her background in journalism—she’s a columnist for the Washington Post—and her interest in oral history. The War Outside has received six starred reviews; Hesse’s first YA book, The Girl in the Blue Coat, won the Edgar Award for Best YA Mystery. We spoke with Hesse about her research process, and about revisiting the subject of World War II in her new book.
This is your second YA book set during the World War II; The Girl in the Blue Coat took place in 1943 Amsterdam. What interests you about this period?
My first book came out of always having been interested in The Diary of Anne Frank and realizing I only knew about Amsterdam from her perspective—which, of course, was inside an annex. I learned about Crystal City from a footnote while I was researching my first book, and it made me realize that there was a whole chapter of American history that I didn’t know a lot about. If you’re like me, the Japanese internment probably only made a few pages of your high school history books, and maybe the class didn’t even get up to that part of the book. I didn’t know enough about that history, and I had no idea that there was a camp that had both German and Japanese families in it.
On a broader scale, what I find really fascinating about World War II is that when we look at it now, we see it as the last great example of when we knew absolutely what was right and absolutely what was wrong. But when you read historical accounts and primary documents and listen to oral histories, you realize that it didn’t feel black and white at the time. Ordinary citizens did terrible things, let terrible things happen, or had terrible things happen to them. I’m interested in that time period because it’s a window into how murky and confusing the human experience is and what it feels like to be an ordinary person caught up in worldwide events that are beyond your control.
I always like stories best where people are both heroes and villains at different points in their lives. Where the bad things that happen don’t always happen because of bad people, but because of bad information or circumstances. The villain here is the U.S., their country, which has betrayed them. And once you’re in that place, how can any of your actions end up well? You’re already put in an impossible circumstance.
Not only is the book fashioned as if it is oral history, personal testimony was an important source for you. What draws you to this form of history?
My training is in journalism, and I think that’s a lot of it. The closer you can get to what happened—the more filters you can remove, the better. I like to read actual documents, because I think that’s where you discover both humanity and nuance. What’s always fascinating to me is reading things like the student newspapers produced by the teenagers imprisoned in the camps. I always try to remind myself that no matter how large the event was, real people were trying to lead real lives, and oral histories and primary sources are where you learn about the human beings caught up in these events.
The story begins when Haruko arrives at the camp, and the question of what constitutes normal life is a thread in the book, with Haruko reminding herself not to see this distortion of her life as normal. This resonates with our current political situation, which has seen a lot of discussion about not letting ourselves become accustomed to dangerous words and actions. Did you think about that as you were writing?
I wasn’t thinking of that as a specific message, but I do think that one of the difficult things about living in a trying time is reminding yourself that you’re in a crazy time and keeping your perspective and your wits about you. You have to balance the normal human emotion of telling yourself that it’s all going to be okay against the idea that it’s not okay. I see that when I research the World War II period, and I feel like it probably happens a lot.
Something that became really clear to me when researching this period, whether in the U.S. or Europe, is how horrified people are in the beginning, and how quickly they become used to things, as whatever the new horror is becomes their status quo. I think we experience that on a smaller scale now, for example, in terms of Trump’s Twitter feed. It used to be that any one of his tweets would have been a front-page story because they’re so outlandish and bizarre, but now we barely take note. It’s normal now that the leader of the country says things like this.
The book is permeated with the girls’ awareness of how being under suspicion and seeing their families trying to weather these circumstances has changed them. At one point Haruko says, “It feels like it is getting more and more impossible for all of us to come out of this and still be whole.” Does that idea speak to the larger issue of what it means to be a nation that has these dark places in its history?
I think this is the cycle of pain and beauty that the U.S. goes through, when some of its citizens commit horrific acts against other citizens, and every time that cycle is over, we say, ‘We’ve learned, we’re better, never again,’ and then we do it again. Sometimes we do it to different citizens, or sometimes it’s not Jim Crow laws, it’s bank redlining that prevents black families from buying homes. Sometimes we’re not putting Japanese-Americans in internment camps, instead we’re putting migrant children in internment camps. And that’s
[where]“why ”? this country is such a heartbreak, because it keeps thinking it’s going to do better, and then it doesn’t. But it keeps striving. So the idea of coming out of a difficult time whole relates to the idea of this cycle of hope and pain that defines the American experience.
The War Outside by Monica Hesse. Little, Brown, $17.99 Sept. ISBN 978-0-316-31669-9