2. Southern US setting
(Many readers know and love Southern fiction, but this isn’t Mississippi: it’s Arkansas. That’s refreshing. Even if Chess does think it’s boring!)
“I sank into his oversized leather chair and spent the next three hours in the romantic English countryside with Jane Eyre, holding at bay the crushing boredom of the Arkansas Delta.”
3. Family dynamics
(Southern literary families: so messed up. From the O’Haras to the Mortons: power struggles and all that talk of land.)
4. Vibrant minor characters
(Like Willie “Cottonmouth” Monroe, who seems to be at the margins of the story, but without him, the rest of the narrative would have taken such a different shape.)
5. First-person narration across time
(Which plays intelligently with the skeleton of what is understood in the past with later realizations of complexity. It’s not just about what is remembered, but the evolution of perspective.)
“So many things lay ahead, but it would only be in looking back that I would see them all connected.”
6. Quintessential charm of a coming-of-age tale
(Chess is twelve-years-old, and the author captures this perfectly, with her seeming sometimes to be “old-for-12”, other times “young-for-12”: caught between two worlds.)
“At the time, I was unable or unwilling to judge my mother’s choices. I only knew that I loved her, that if I could choose to, I would be her….”
7. Beautiful cover
(Well, come on: I’m not the only one who chooses books for cover art. This is gorgeous, so soft and enchanting, with that slim scar of cruelty across the centre that you almost overlook.)
(It’s dribbled throughout and even though it’s never seemingly at the centre of the story, if characters did not love the people they loved, the story would not have played out as it did.)
9. Rebuilding/Survival story
(What happens when a group of people are lifted out of their everyday lives and have to re-establish themselves, re-create a community without anything familiar around them. It goes to the core of identity and what makes us human.
When I heard about Vivienne Schiffer’s debut novel, from the University of Arkansas Press, I could not resist. The internment of the Japanese-North-Americans during WWII is a subject that has repelled/compelled me for years.
I first learned about it when I was in grade school, through an excerpt in my reader. And when I was Chess’s age, I read parts of Joy Kogawa’s novel Obasan. Like Chess, there was a lot that I did not understand about the camps, but I was interested in the fact that children had been interned, children younger than I.
Naomi is only five years old in parts of Obasan, and those are the parts that I remember reading, the parts in which she is younger than I am. It was not my book, it was my mother’s. And there I was, at twelve: all mixed up with innocence, and intelligence and ignorance, much like Chess.
At twelve, you are old enough to be included in a lot of what was only-shortly-before off-limits to you, old enough to appreciate that sense of the world opening up for you. (Old enough to leaf through one of the novels that your mother received as a gift.)
But you are also beginning to sense how overwhelming that access can be, old enough to recognize the allure of a retreat from knowledge, old enough to choose not to examine the uncomfortable truths that the adults around you circumvent. (And young enough to be bored by much of the content in novels written with adult readers in mind.)
Many other readers of Vivienne Schiffer’s debut novel have written about Chess and her perspective on the events chronicled in Camp Nine, and the interactions between the Morton family and the Matsui family, so let me slip past talk of character and plot to how the novel’s thematic exploration of racism is developed thorough the characters and their experiences.
******I think this is my longest post ever; if this theme is not one with which you are personally preoccupied, I will understand if you want to skip to the marker below to see my summary of this aspect of the novel. But if the theme is of personal interest to you, I think you’ll understand why I think it’s important to discuss Camp Nine in detail in relationship to it. Still, no spoilers.******
As enthusiastic as I had been, when I realized the author is not Japanese, I became a little anxious; writers inhabit other existences, and I have no issue with the matter of appropriating and developing a voice to construct a narrative, but these narratives can easily slip into repetitive stereotypes, which simply perpetuate a pattern of rote-answers, rather than nuanced creations which introduce a dynamic element which is more about asking questions. (In short, in theory it’s fine, in reality it’s often not.)
And my anxiety was heightened with the introduction of a black character, whose speech was depicted in a Southern dialect, with ‘ain’t’s and ‘gonna’s while all the other Southern characters that I’d met — all white, up until that point — spoke the King’s English without exception.
My inner ear was hearing a southern drawl throughout the speech of all the characters, with the exception of the characters interned at Camp Nine, so the fact that this one individual’s dialogue was represented in this way was jarring indeed.
So I went back and re-read that first 40 pages, thinking that this was going to be a hard review to write, thinking that I was going to need a lot more quotes than I’d expected, thinking that I wouldn’t be participating in any more events like this.
And, honestly, I was thinking that through much of the novel, but…and there is a HUGE ‘but’ coming, so please don’t go away thinking this is where it stops, but first a smaller ‘but’.
But I wasn’t entirely disappointed either. There were a lot of indications that the author has spotted all kinds of intricacies about her characters’/community’s racist conditioning, so that degree of awareness kept me reading to try to understand her reason for making that decision.
Sometimes they were not very intricate observations, but broad statements.
‘Every town in the Delta, even a tiny burg like Rook, had both white and black sections, with a black inhabitants vastly outnumbering the white ones. Larger, louder, and more colorful, the black sections were separated by a thick rope of custom.”
Yes, that’s right rope of custom. Rope of racism. I don’t think that allusion is accidental and I admired such subtle detailing. (Maybe it’s not all-that-subtle, but on first reading I thought of a rope like the kind that keeps order in a line-up for a bank teller; it was my second reading that brought lynchings to mind.)
The main characters’ complexity also contained revelations, which were sometimes disappointing, but very human.
Chess’s mother Carrie is considered progressive in many ways; she is challenged outright by more conservative elements of the community, for involving herself (and, eventually, Chess) with the internment camp, because most would rather ignore or condemn its inhabitants. And, yet, in a seemingly contradictory way, Carrie and Chess accept a certain status relative to Ruby Jean, the black woman who cooks and cleans their home.
Carrie and Chess can see the injustices perpetrated on the Japanese community, and they are prepared to take action against those (to what degree is debatable, but certainly it’s significant in relation to other community members’ apathy/antipathy towards the situation). But they do not overtly challenge the status quo regarding racial relations in their own home.
These layers made the characters credible. Lamentable, yes, that Carrie did not recognize the parallels in the two situations, but it suited her character.
In a similar vein, I appreciated the matter-of-fact approach that Chess took to her recollections of the native mounds that had existed on her grandfather’s land.
“There had once been mounds on the Morton Plantation, but Grandpa had them bulldozed to the ground to make the fields level to grow cotton and soybeans.”
She does not shy away from the word ‘plantation’; she is from a land-owning family and the ramifications of this term do not shame or alarm her, although it does reveal something to the reader about her understanding of privilege.
And, in chronicling the story of the family’s land development, she simply remarked upon the native mounds, without alluding to the extermination of the peoples that her ancestors (in the broader sense of the word) perpetrated. Chess found Spanish coins and a gold cross in the land there; that is what she knows of what was lost.
Again, lamentable that Chess was not aware of the brutal history of indigenous peoples, but for her to have said anymore than that would have been inconsistent with her character, taking Camp Nine into the realm of polemic rather than fiction.
One of the most unsettling inconsistencies in these characters’ perspective was in Chess’ declaration that landowning families were not members of the Ku Klux Klan.
She observed that the Klan’s lynchings and murders were not tolerated by the wealthy because it directly eroded their labour supply; for economic reasons alone, they did not join the organization. Instead, contrary to popular belief, she explained that it was men of the lower classes, whose own ability to earn was based on labour (and, hence, they were in competition with black labourers) who joined the KKK.
I think Chess is correct in suggesting that most people overlook the fact that men of all classes (lower, too) were members of this organization, but she also overlooks the fact that landowners and influential community members did too, and that fits with her character’s position in society. Nonetheless, she does accord them only an economic interest in the outcome, rather than to suggest some sort of anachronistic concern about human rights.
Maybe someone has the relevant statistics for a class-breakdown of KKK membership, but even without them, I appreciate that Chess’ words are not intended as an “excuse”, but a reminder that things are always more complicated than they appear. No group ever consistently and wholly inhabits the role of victim or victimizer; individuals fall throughout the spectrum of sufferer or perpetrator.
“What you gone eat?”
“You gonna use coupons…?”
“Ain’t no cause to use no coupons. You ain’t got but a few left.”
Ruby Jean’s speech being set apart was, I thought, completely without basis.
Even the Japanese characters’ language was depicted as King’s English, with all the R’s and L’s perfectly pronounced seemingly (though Carrie’s name in particular could not have been pronounced, by all the members of the Matsui family who addressed her directly, exactly as written).
And it was clear that their speech sounded different to the other characters. So not using dialect for them, too, was a baffling choice.
“Willie couldn’t see David. But he could hear him. And his ears told him that David wasn’t from around here.”
But. And this is the huge but.
Then a white character speaks these lines:
“Your kin is off over there fighting these devils and getting kilt!”
“…you git your ass back on in the house ‘fore I wear you out.”
“This ain’t none of y’all’s business.”
Now, what I’m not going to do is tell you what conclusions I think that the reader is intended to draw from this (because it verges into spoiler territory). But the end result is that nothing is as simple as I thought.
The author’s decision to change the characters’ modes of expression is not based in their racial identity. Vivienne Schiffer is not providing the same old answers; she is raising a set of questions.
*****You could read Camp Nine for any of the reasons that I’ve counted off. It’s a fine debut novel.
Maybe you could argue that the final scene is a bit rushed (but that could be rationalized by the question of Chess having waited almost her entire life for something which is actually concluded very succinctly).
Maybe you could suggest that the distance of Chess’ examination of the events from years later keeps the reader at a distance as well (although any closer examination would have risked sentimentalizing the events too).
But, in my opinion, what makes it worth reading, what makes it stand out, is her deft consideration of the racial issues that permeate the story line, that permeate our world.
It’s a story rooted in one race’s internment of another; it’s a story in which appropriation of voice could have easily gone awry. Similar tales told by white writers have gone awry.
I am thrilled that Camp Nine made me question my own belief that a white writer was more-likely-than-not to make a mis-step in writing a novel with racial conflict at its heart.
Vivienne Schiffer’s Camp Nine from the University of Arkansas Press (2011):
Other TLC Tour Dates and Stops
Monday, October 31st: Broken Teepee
Wednesday, November 2nd: Literature and a Lens
Thursday, November 3rd: Wordsmithonia
Friday, November 4th: Melody & Words
Monday, November 7th: Booksie’s Blog
Tuesday, November 8th: Lit and Life
Wednesday, November 9th: Write Meg
Thursday, November 10th: Juggling Life
Friday, November 11th: Picky Girl
Monday, November 14th: BookNAround
Tuesday, November 15th: Savvy Verse and Wit
Thursday, November 17th: A Bookish Affair
Friday, November 18th: For the love of books
And coming soon:
Wednesday, November 23rd: The Lost Entwife
Thursday, December 1st: The Adventures of an Intrepid Reader
Here is the tour’s dedicated page: do check out the other readers’ opinions and observations.
Thanks to Trish for inviting me to participate, and thanks to the publisher for supplying a copy of the book for promotional purposes.