The War Outside

The War Outside takes place in an internment camp in Crystal City, Texas during the 1940s, when Americans of Japanese and German origin were “voluntarily” relocated to you know, basically prison camps. I don’t think I fully realized how this system worked and that it involved Germans as well as the Japanese, though obviously not as many Germans since they were a bigger segment of the population. The story begins when Haruko and her Japanese family arrive at Crystal City, an internment camp, and are recorded by Margot, a German detainee who has been there for awhile. We meet both of their families, including Haruko’s younger siblings (her older brother is off fighting in the war) and Margot’s very pregnant mother and her father.

The plot revolves around the unlikely and sometimes tense friendship between Haruko and Margot as they discover each other and grapple with the actions or inactions of their parents that landed them in Crystal City to begin with. Haruko misses her brother, Ken, who is off at war, and still resents her father for allowing her mother and siblings to join him here in the internment camp. Margot is an only child despite her parent’s best efforts and doesn’t quite fit in anywhere, which is maybe why she and Haruko take to each other so quickly when they start meeting in the icehouse for a little alone time. But even in the supposed serenity of the same, surrounded by barbed wire of course, tensions are brewing. The German group has elected a Nazi as their spokesman, and he is waving around a swastika flag. Talks of repatriation are brewing, even for people who have never been patriots of Germany and Japan to begin with. Then, a tragedy happens at the newly opened swimming pool and tensions ratcher even higher.

You know from the beginning there is no happy ending. Come on, this is a World War II book. But Haruko and Margot, as they tell their stories, represent a struggle with not necessarily the truth but what we want to believe, what we tell ourselves, and what we’re willing to hide to protect those around us. There’s underlying sexual tensions, questions of loyalty, hope for the future, and some heartbreak that is misunderstood on both sides.

There are lots of World War II/Holocaust books out there,but this is the first YA novel I’ve read set at an American internment camp. I think this book is really critical reading for helping kids connect with the idea and the atrocities that America committed within its own borders as well as contextualizing it within the larger context of World War II. Teens will like this book because it focuses on their real experiences within these kind of situations—friendships and worrying about your parents and college and annoying siblings and the like—while still giving them a taste of this very odd situation, an internment camp in Texas with cardboard ration token and a black-bottom swimming pool and Federal High School. There’s a lot of the typical teen book woven into this tale of World War II. Kids will relate to some of the fraught emotions felt by both Margot and Haruko and their relationships with their parents. This would also be a great tie in to a curriculum on World War II that focuses on the American aspect of it all and aspects of storytelling and controlling your own narrative.

There’s a substantial “here’s the truth” section that talks about how Crystal City really did exist, how people don’t really know about the German aspect of the camps, how the swimming pool incident really happened, etc. Haruko and Margot are fictional characters but their stories are rooted in an unfortunate reality, which makes this an excellent piece of historical fiction.

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