The Last Year of the War by Susan Meissner

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Plot & Storyline Quality (3 points)

Susan Meissner’s latest novel is perhaps her best and most creative work to date. The Last Year of the War has a strong storyline, realistic and relatable characters, and a poignant underlying message. Elise Sontag is your average American teenager in the 1940’s. She has a strong and supportive family, good friends, and a positive outlook on life. There’s just one problem – in 1940’s America it is not good to have German ancestry. Elise’s late paternal grandfather was a decorated hero of the first World War, and her paternal grandmother, aunts, and uncles still live in Germany. Her parents immigrated to Iowa before her birth and have only recently applied to become U.S. citizens – a fact they will later come to regret. When the American government comes to a hasty conclusion based on five instances involving Otto Sontag (Elise’s father), Elise’s world is torn apart. Otto is suddenly shipped off to an unknown location out west and the rest of the Sontag family – Elise, her mother, and younger brother Max – are left to fend for themselves. Eventually Elise, Max, and their mother join their father at an internment camp in Texas that is home to Japanese, German, and Irish Americans. Otto and his wife are assigned jobs, Elise and Max are enrolled in a federal school in the camp, and the family is given a small house to live in. In a way, the family’s new daily tasks are not all that different than their old ones, but they are doing them behind a barbed wire fence patrolled by guards and dogs. Elise begins to wonder if her life will ever be normal again – until she makes an unlikely friend named Mariko. Mariko is a second generation Japanese American whose story is similar to Elise’s. She makes a plan for how the two girls will live independent lives going forward and gives Elise hope for a better future. (spoiler) When the war comes to an end, Elise and her family and forced to go back to Germany and Mariko and her family to Japan. As a result, Elise decides that she can no longer rely on her family or Mariko. As one circumstance leads to another, Elise makes a rash decision that will change her life forever. What does Elise decide, and will the two friends ever meet again? To answer both of these questions, read the book! Meissner seems to have hit her stride with this biopic-style novel, a fact that is evident through her use of first-person and her excellent continuity. Likewise, she does a good job of balancing the backstories of multiple characters with the large amount of time covered in the novel. Meissner gives great attention to detail by leaving no plot holes along the way and holds the reader’s attention from cover to cover with her above average dialogue and unexpected twists in the storyline. In contrast, the weaknesses in the storyline are minor. First, the middle of the novel contains a bit too much information, which implies that it needed some more editing. Lastly, the brief language in the latter third of the novel, although realistic in the context it is used, is unnecessary. Thus, Meissner rounds out with slightly less than a perfect score in this section.

Character Development (3 points)

Meissner’s character development is also quite good. Elise is an excellent protagonist who displays realistic emotional responses to traumatic events and has above average dialogue for a female lead. Additionally, the hard lessons Elise learns from her mistakes are very realistic and relatable. (spoiler) Furthermore, Meissner’s creative personification of Elise’s illness gives her and the plot depth. Mariko adds a lot to the novel as well and just as good of a character as Elise – this is a rare sighting in this genre. (spoiler) For instance, when asked whether she is a tomboy, Mariko replies: “I am myself.” This response encompasses the whole of her character and demonstrates the author’s grasp on real, authentic people who do not conform to social norms. Much like the last section, the errors here are minor. First, some of the minor characters get lost in the vast amount of time covered in the storyline, thus making it difficult to keep up with roles of secondary characters. Lastly, characters like Pamela and Teddy are only partially developed and needed a bit more depth; however, as their role in the story is very small, the flaw does not have a grest effect on the plot. Therefore, Meissner earns just short of a perfect score in this area as well.

Creativity & Originality (1 point)

Finally, Meissner earns a half point in creativity for her unique use of plot devices and for the pleasantly unexpected twists in the plot, along with a half point in originality for her exceptional dialogue and outside-the-box characters. We here at BOR think this novel would make a great Christian biopic film or series that depicted the lives of Mariko and Elise. The film would need to pick up the deep yet dubtle themes Meissner weaves through the novel – this could be accomplished through a little editing of the storyline and a great cast. In spite of this, Meissner has set up a great framework for success, so it can be done.

Wish List Rating: 7 out of 10 points

As Bright as Heaven by Susan Meissner

Plot & Storyline Quality (1.5 points)

Susan Meissner’s recent novel shows a deep understanding of how people of different personalities think and act, along with an accurate and touching portrayal of familial interaction. As Bright as Heaven is not a typical historical novel, nor does it fall into the usual pitfalls of illness-based storylines. In short, it is a refreshing look at how people in history were not all that different from people today. Pauline and Thomas Bright are a happily married couple living in Quaker-town who have just suffered the loss of their youngest child Henry – a heart donor could not be found. His death has in turn made Pauline open to Thomas taking up his Uncle Fred’s offer to learn to take his place as the owner of his mortuary. The remaining Bright children – Maggie, Evelyn (Evie), and Willa, have mixed feelings about the move, but eventually decide to go along for the ride. When the Brights arrive in Philadelphia they quickly settle into their new roles to fill the void Henry left behind. Thomas works directly with Fred to prepare dead bodies for burial, Pauline does hair and makeup to make the deceased presentable at funerals, and the girls balance school and their social lives. Pauline deals with Henry’s absence by becoming rather obsessed with “Death”. In her mind she has continual debates with this figure and questions many aspects of life. Maggie quickly becomes interested in Jamie – the boy next door – and plans on following her mother’s footsteps in caring for the dead. Evelyn is quiet, reflective, and always tries to find a way to serve others – she is the most responsible of the sisters. Willa is very self-absorbed and cares more about her social life than succeeding in school. On the whole, things are going well for the Brights…until war threatens to tear them apart. The Spanish flu, the Great war, and extraordinary circumstances will change their family forever. Meissner’s creative plot integrates many psychological and philosophical elements that make for a very unique read. While at some time the plot seems morbidly realistic, it is based off of true historical events. Overall, it has a very good character-driven storyline reminiscent of The Book Thief. One critic pointed out that the novel’s biggest weaknesses are “stark realism offset by unreasonable optimism,” and the “denouement” that ties up all loose ends. I must say that I agree with this assessment. A novel such as this needs an ending that leaves much to the imagination. (spoiler) Furthermore, the questionable relationship between Evie and Conrad drags down the plot quality. However, the errors here could be fixed on the big screen, so Meissner rounds out with slightly below an average score in this section.

Character Development (3 points)

The strongest part of this novel is the extremely well-done first-person perspectives on crisis events and other happenings. Pauline, Maggie, Evie, Willa, and Uncle Fred have clearly defined personalities and tendencies – a fact which adds much to an otherwise melancholy storyline. While Thomas and Jamie are somewhat two-dimensional because they comes in and out of the plot, they are also good characters. Meissner did well to focus most of her attention on her main characters, a fact that is evidenced through the way one forgets that this is a book and not the story of a real family. The minor characters are also better than usual for a historical novel and have clear personalities. The only error to note here is that towards the end of the novel it feels like things happen to the characters for the sake of extending the plot. In spite of this, Meissner earns just short of a perfect score in this section because the errors therein could be easily fixed in movie/series form.

Creativity & Originality (1 points)

Finally, Meissner has managed to craft a creative historical novel that is neither boring nor commonplace. Therefore, she earns a full point in originality for her attention to character development. As Bright as Heaven would make a great TV miniseries similar to the famed Anne of Green Gables miniseries. If the screenwriter (hopefully Ms. Meissner) changed the ending so that it left more to the imagination, and tidied up the unnecessary parts of the story to fit into concise episode form, this book could change the face of Christian historical film.

Wish List Rating: 5.5 out of 10 points