Author
Q&A

Tell us about your new book, The Eyes of the Enemy.
First of all, it's a story about the Second World War. But it's also a family story, exploring ways the war affects three families in particular - two on the home front in Nebraska and another on the Japanese island of Okinawa. I bring them all together with a bit of fictional magic.
What do you mean by that?
One of my favorite things about being an author is that I can bend the rules of reality in a story if it helps me explore a particular subject or theme. In my previous book, Unswept Graves (a companion to this volume), I sent my modern-day heroine Jasmine Wu into the past, to show her things she never knew about the trials her ancestors faced. This time, I send my heroine Kathy Syverson into the fury of the war's Pacific theater. She sees the horrors her brother experiences during battle, but also discovers the connections she has with her fellow human beings - even those on the other side of the conflict.
How did you develop an idea like that?
It wasn't easy, and it didn't happen all at once. My first piece of the puzzle came all the way back in 2002, while I was visiting my parents. One evening, I found my mother going through a box of old letters and other papers. They were from her Uncle Lew, she explained - an odd explanation to me, because I didn't remember ever hearing about an Uncle Lew before. He was my grandfather's brother, and he'd been a US Army Lieutenant during World War II, killed in action on Leyte Island in the Philippines in November 1944. My mother was deciding which of his letters to contribute to a collection of wartime correspondence being assembled at the school where she taught.
You've written about your family's wartime experiences before. Is The Eyes of the Enemy similar to your first book, Liberty Girl?
No, they're very different. Liberty Girl is a fairly straightforward account of my grandmother's experience as a seventh grade girl in Baltimore during World War I. It's highly fictionalized - I invented many of the characters and embellished all of the events - but at its core, it's still the basic story I read in my grandmother's remembrances. That approach wasn't going to work in the case of my mother's family during World War II. I knew I'd have to do something else. So I just kind of filed the idea away in my head, as I often do with stories that aren't ready to be written yet.
So when did you find your next piece of the story?
That came in 2006, when a Japanese TV movie I found online introduced me to the Battle of Okinawa. It was World War II's last major engagement, and it was long and terrible. At that point in the war, the Japanese knew they couldn't win, so their strategy was to make the American advance so bloody and so costly that they'd choose to negotiate peace rather than conquer the Japanese Home Islands. But what made the battle especially horrible was the large number of civilian casualties. It's estimated that 142,000 people - one-third of the civilian population - were killed. That's more than were killed in the initial bomb blasts at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Why were there so many deaths?
Many were victims of "collateral damage." Either their homes were bombed by American planes and naval guns, or they were caught in the crossfire between the two sides. Others were killed when the Japanese army used them as cannon fodder or threw them out of the caves they were hiding in, leaving them to fend for themselves. And still others committed suicide, too ashamed of their defeat or frightened by Japanese propaganda that portrayed Americans as savage brutes.
How did that inspire your story?
Learning more about those civilians made me think there might be a story waiting for me. I was especially interested in the children who were caught in the conflict. Perhaps the best known accounts are from Okinawan high school girls who were pressed into service as battlefield nurses. Another book I found told the story of a young girl who was sheltered by an elderly couple through much of the battle. When the fighting subsided, they gave her a makeshift white flag and told her to go to the Americans. By the time she made it, she was being followed by an entire line of surrendering Japanese soldiers. If there was a book for me to write about Okinawa, it would involve characters like these children, because my readers could relate to them.
So how and when did you put the story together?
Not until after I'd written Unswept Graves. That story gave me the fictional town of Helmerton, Nebraska, a small prairie community where a bit of magical realism had already been going on. It was just the setting I needed to bring an American main character into contact with children from across the battle lines. Helmerton had something else, too - the Fong family, who had originally emigrated from China. They gave me the chance to create a subplot that explored the anti-Asian prejudice going on in America at the time. Research into the Nebraska home front turned up several more story elements for me to add, most notably the North Platte Canteen, which really did serve every troop train passing through its station from Christmas 1941 to April 1946.

Tying all these different threads together produced a story in which Kathy discovers her connections to all the people around her. At home, she has her family, but also the other people in town, working together for the war effort and supporting each other through their troubles. In the war, she is tied to her brother, but she also discovers her place in the community of all children affected by war, stretching through history.
What do you think this story can say to a modern audience?
In our current times, we've been a part of one conflict or another for so long that many children have never known anything else. The national effort hasn't been as all-encompassing as it was in World War II, but many children have had relatives fighting overseas, many have experienced prejudice against people associated with "the enemy," and many have at least seen TV footage of the hardships children endure in the war zone. The Eyes of the Enemy gives our modern world some perspective, showing what these experiences were like in a different time and helping us realize our place in history.


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