Three drawn to­gether by World War II

The Denver Post - - LIFE & CULTURE - By Carol Mem­mott


Karin Tan­abe’s mov­ing new novel, “The Diplo­mat’s Daugh­ter,” is set dur­ing the global tur­moil of the late 1930s and 1940s, but its po­lit­i­cal res­o­nance is time­less and its story is cap­ti­vat­ing.

On a white-hot day, boys play foot­ball in­side the fences of a World War Iiera in­tern­ment camp in Texas. Fel­low pris­oner Emi Kato no­tices how “un-ja­panese” the boys seem. “It shocked Emi to think that the Amer­i­can gov­ern­ment con­sid­ered these fenced-in chil­dren dan­ger­ous. Aliens. They seemed al­most like car­i­ca­tures of Amer­i­can teenagers to her.”

Emi is the young woman for whom the book is ti­tled. Cul­tured and out­spo­ken, she is the daugh­ter of a Ja­panese diplo­mat. She spends more than a year in an in­tern­ment camp be­fore be­ing loaded onto a ship that will take her and hun­dreds of other Ja­panese back to Tokyo. Ship­board life is filthy, and prom­ises of bet­ter con­di­tions in Tokyo turn out to be false.

Emi’s story is in­spired, in part, by that of Tan­abe’s fa­ther, Fran­cis, who was 3 years old and liv­ing in Ja­pan when Tokyo was fire­bombed by Amer­i­can planes. (Af­ter com­ing to the United States, he worked for many years as art di­rec­tor of The Wash­ing­ton Post’s Book World.)

Be­fore the war, Emi’s fa­ther worked at the Ja­panese em­bassy in Vi­enna. This in­trigu­ing plot thread al­lows Tan­abe to in­cor­po­rate the plight of Europe’s Jews into her story. As a young teen, Emi falls in love with a wealthy class­mate named Leo Hart­mann. Not long af­ter, he and his par­ents flee the Nazis and even­tu­ally set­tle in Shang­hai, where the Ja­panese hold them in a ghetto as star­va­tion and dis­ease steal thou­sands of lives.

Another plot line in­volves Chris­tian Lange, a teenager liv­ing in Wis­con­sin. One night in 1943, fed­eral agents en­ter the Lange home and ar­rest his Ger­man-born par­ents on charges of be­ing an­ti­amer­i­can. The Langes are le­gal U.S. res­i­dents who quickly learn they have no pro­tec­tions un­der the law. “We are at war with your coun­try,” an agent tells them. “Your rights, or these rights you as­sume in­cor­rectly that you have, no longer ex­ist.” The Langes will be repa­tri­ated to Ger­many but not be­fore they are shipped to the camp where Emi is be­ing held. There, Ger­mans and Ja­panese are housed sep­a­rately, but the two young peo­ple fall in love. Af­ter Emi and her mother are shipped to Ja­pan, the Amer­ica-born Chris­tian turns 18 and en­lists. His military ser­vice drops read­ers onto the bloody bat­tle­fields of the Pa­cific.

Like any well-re­searched war novel, “The Diplo­mat’s Daugh­ter” re­lies on fa­mil­iar his­tory. But Tan­abe also in­cludes de­tails that many read­ers may not know, such as the fact that 11,000 Ger­mans were in­terned in the United States, and that Shang­hai was a haven, al­beit a treach­er­ous one, for Jews dur­ing the war. She also in­cludes the ironic his­tory of Karuizawa, a Ja­panese moun­tain town where Emi’s par­ents send her to live out the hos­til­i­ties. Though many refugees starved to death, Jews and Nazis co­ex­isted some­what peace­ably there un­til war’s end.

All of this makes for rich read­ing. And even though we know how World War II con­cludes, the fates of Emi, Leo and Chris­tian will sur­prise you.

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