Rose Seiler Scott

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June 23, 2022
by Rose Scott
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The Orphan Collector, by Ellen Marie Wiseman

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As I read the Orphan Collector, I couldn’t help but notice parallels between 1918 and 2020. Mask mandates, closures of theatres and churches. Overcrowded hospitals and fear of a deadly, unseen enemy. The so-called “Spanish” influenza spread quickly and violently. Young children and young parents in crowded conditions succumbed the most. Desperate people turned to folk remedies drinking kerosene and whisky and wearing necklaces of garlic. But these provided little protection against a virus that could kill in a matter of hours, leaving countless orphans, and parents bereft of children.

Thirteen year old Pia, living in Philadelphia, already has life challenges. Her German heritage for one thing, carefully guarded in a time of war and prejudice. The poverty of her circumstances is alleviated only by the unselfishness and advocacy of her dear Mutti and the love of her Vati, who they hope will return from the front. Pia often experiences pain when others touch her, causing isolation and fear.

When the flu hits her family her fragile support system collapses and she must care for her infant twin brothers. With the whole city under lockdown, her only friend gone, the choices before her are heart-wrenching. She lives to regret her decision.

Along with the history and mystery surrounding the story, Wiseman has infused plenty of suspense and just enough credible horror to make the reader cringe. Descriptions and realistic detail create a convincing world with complex characters both lovable and despicable. The Orphan Collector kept me up well past bedtime. A stirring five star read for fans of 20th century historical fiction and suspense.

May 13, 2022
by Rose Scott
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The Boys in the Boat, by Daniel James Brown

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Book review: The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and their epic quest for Gold in the 1936 Olympics by Daniel James Brown

Like narrative non-fiction such as Unbroken by Lauren Hillenbrand, or biographical World War Two fiction? If so, you will find The Boys in the Boat an intriguing read.

The Boys in the Boat

Most of us alive today can’t remember that time. Poverty was rampant, despair only a mealtime away and ominous shadows of World War Two stretched across the sea, threatening catastrophe for yet another generation of young men.

Great Depression

During the Great Depression of the 1930’s the West Coast of the U.S. was mostly wild, untamed forests of massive cedars and unspoiled waters. Shrouded in mist and rain, rugged men chopped, sawed, dug and fished their living from forest, mountain and sea. Here we find young Joe Rantz. It is the worst of times and his childhood circumstances are heartbreaking. After abandonment by his stepmother and father, his early life is spent scrabbling out a living any which way he can. All the while he warily guards his fragile inner self from further pain.

Rowing to the Olympics

When the opportunity for competitive rowing presents itself, Joe seizes it. He throws himself into the intense and consuming competition of the popular sport. Along with similarly determined young men, he has much to learn, not only about rowing, but about himself.

The elite Ivy league rowers of the East soon discover they can’t hold an oar to these young Washington upstarts. What these lumberjacks, fishermen and subsistence farmers lack in refinement, they make up for in strength, endurance and grit. Their secret weapon coxswain, Bobby Moch doesn’t hurt either, upsetting the rowing “establishment” with their record breaking times.

But the path to glory is rarely straight. Coach Ulbrickson struggles to determine the perfect combination of rowers for his varsity team. Joe is an enigma to him. His heart has yet to follow his mind and muscle into the rowing shell and bond with his teammates. But the risk of seating Joe pays off, both for Ulbrickson, Joe and the rest of the team.

1936 Berlin Olympics

As the boys romp around Berlin between Olympic  trials and workouts, Brown guides the reader behind the curtain of Hitler and Goebbel’s carefully crafted illusions. The world stage of the 1936 Olympics is a grand deception; a charade designed to impress the world and distract it from the ugliness of the Nazi regime. Their stunning efforts are successful, especially for naïve young athletes visiting Germany for the first time.

Coach Ulbrickson already has plenty to prove with his Washington boys, for their country and now the whole world. Winning is also personal for Pocock. He lovingly crafted each racing shell and encouraged the team to excellence along the way. When it becomes evident that Germany blatantly gives itself and its allies every advantage, in order to take gold in their rowing event, Ulbrickson has no idea how the U.S. team can pull off a win or even a respectable placement. To top that off, one of his rowers takes ill. Given the situation, a fiction writer could hardly make up worse odds and Brown has woven the facts so the reader truly wonders what will happen.

The Other Boys in the Boat

Part way through the book, I wondered about the other “boys in the boat.” Their similar hard-luck stories are briefly alluded to, but compared to Joe, they don’t get much coverage. Towards the end, I realised this was not a shortcoming on the part of the author, but more a reality of the story. Spoiler: Joe is one of the last men left alive to tell this tale when Brown began his research.  This highlights how important it is to get stories down, before they perish with those who lived them. It is no mistake or failing in the telling that Joe’s journey from a hungry, lonely child to a man with purpose, love and lifelong friends, forms a wonderful arc for this real life account of the “Boys in the Boat.”

Brown’s telling glows with insight, compassion and intelligence, making this narrative non-fiction read like a novel. One can’t help but feel for the boys in the boat, especially Joe—the pain and breathlessness as they row, the exhilaration and thrill of their wins and their commitment to each other.

Is there a movie in the making? I certainly hope so!

May 23, 2020
by Rose Scott
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Book Review: When the War is over

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Imagine you are just fifteen years old. But fifteen, in 1944 Germany approaches adulthood. Like it or not, conscription awaits for you and your friends.

Anton apprentices in his late father’s trade as a watchmaker, even though he dreams of playing the violin. No time or money for violin lessons. Anton has responsibilities and promises to keep—to his mother, his younger siblings, his friends and their mothers. His father’s watch gives him hope, but even that might be of better use as a pawn in hopes of avoiding the burden of his fate.

When he turns sixteen, Anton’s receives orders to report for service to the Wehrmacht. Rumours of Hitler’s “Wonder Weapon” keep the army going, long after they have lost. Flames of defeat consume the landscape of a devastated country. Desperate and exhausted soldiers stumble westward through a charred landscape, away from the Russian army. Most, like Anton are still in their teens, dreaming of home, their girlfriends and possible future careers. Anton wants to see his family and Luise again. But those dreams are far away, when even a decent meal and a safe, warm bed is out of reach.

War history consists of individual stories. Much can be learned, even from accounts of those who fought for the Third Reich. As Anton’s father said, “if you want to get an accurate read on a situation, you can’t listen to just one side.” (p.35) When the War is Over, by Anja May is based on the author’s grandfather’s own experiences. An excellent and gripping read.

January 31, 2020
by Rose Scott
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Victoria history tidbits: Governor James Douglas

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Victoria

Real life and writing don’t always make room for each other, so I haven’t blogged much lately, but decided a few months ago to quit one of my jobs and return to writing. I had started on a sequel to Threaten to Undo Us, but my other late grandmother’s life beckoned like a glimmering gas lantern on a dark Liverpool street. Only 25,000 words in, but I will reveal this:  In addition to Liverpool, much of the story takes place in Victoria on Vancouver Island. Yes, Victoria, BC, where royals, Harry and Meghan have taken up residence.

History of Victoria

The history of Victoria is easily accessible for research and that is lovely for me. I can even hop a ferry over. Writing about Germans in Poland during the first half of the 20th century wasn’t like that at all. Distance and language barriers, not to mention the politics of the narrative made it especially challenging. Nothing like jumping all in on my #debut novel.  In comparison, this book should be a walk in Butchart Gardens. Hmm, I wonder if that was around in the 1930’s?

Sir James Douglas

I’ve already found fascinating tidbits of history. Today, colonialism and white privilege has angled historical conversations in a different direction. Obviously James Douglas, hailing from the British empire and setting up Fort Victoria for the Hudson’s Bay Company, would have been an egregious example of such.

Or was he?

 Douglas became the first governor of BC before Canadian confederation. Before 1967, we had governors, like the US states.  His father, no surprise, was from Glasgow, but his mother was, wait for it— the daughter of a “free coloured woman.”1  Douglas was born out of wedlock in 1803, when his father managed a sugar plantation in Guyana. Fortunately his father determined that his illegitimate children, even though descended from African ancestors, should have an education in Scotland.

Amelia

But that is not all. Douglas, who began his career in Canada as a fur trader, took a Metis’ wife, Amelia. In Canadian history, with a severe shortage of European women, that was not unusual. However, as more “suitable” brides became available, men often dropped their mixed breed wives as if they were broken arrowheads and moved on to other women. Since the original marriages were ceremonial or common-law, it was a convenient matter. At least for the men. Amelia’s mother and her siblings were victims of this. Her father, an Irish fur trader had lived with her Cree mother for thirty years, but when the opportunity to marry a Caucasian cousin arose, he claimed no legal union to his first wife.

In contrast, Douglas eventually “upgraded” his union with Amelia to legal status, thus granting her security and privilege. He was protective of her mixed race status, perhaps due to his own parentage and had no patience with people who reacted negatively. Yes, in Victorian Victoria, this happened.

Black Settlers

In 1858, Douglas welcomed a group of black settlers from San Francisco to settle in the new colony. Sadly, they weren’t always made as welcome as Douglas would have preferred, but men such as Mifflin Gibbs, became upstanding members of the community. After the Civil war was over, many returned to the US, but others settled on nearby Saltspring Island and throughout British Columbia.

Other less admirable incidents in Douglas’ life are up for dispute and discussion, but I’ll leave those discoveries to you. A number of landmarks on Vancouver Island and the mainland, including roads, schools and colleges are named after him both on the island and Lower Mainland of BC.

1. Reksten, Terry. More English than the English: A Very Social History of Victoria. Sono Nis Press, 2011, p. 15

January 9, 2020
by Rose Scott
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Book review: Forty Autumns

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Forty Autumns by Nina Willner

Forty Autumns

Willner’s account, Forty Autumns, chronicles the experiences of her family during the iron-fisted regime of the German Democratic Republic (1949-1990).

The Second World War has wound to a close. Perhaps life can return to normal. Or not. For Willner’s family, as for millions of others behind the Iron Curtain, a new normal, intrudes upon their lives. Almost a mirror image of the Third Reich, The communist regime boasts new governing officials, restrictions on freedom, youth programs, and its own set of propaganda. The “People” replace “The Fatherland,” communism replaces fascism and Young Pioneers replace the Hitler Youth.

A daring Escape

Hanna, a restless teen, rebels under the bleak strictures of this new reign. Over the years, escaping becomes increasingly difficult, and repercussions on families left behind are costly. For Hanna and her loving family, long term separation causes pain on all sides. Willner lovingly narrates the family’s lives as they navigate the totalitarian German Democratic Republic (DDR) and its effects on their family ties, finances and freedom. Opa compromises in order to please those above him and keep his job, but his struggle under communist idealogy is ongoing and it nearly breaks him. In contrast, some of his children succeed in small measure to stay true to themselves.

Parallel Lives

Willner does not hold back. Her loving and positive mother, her tormented father and various siblings, over 40 years, work to make life bearable while missing their oldest sister. Meanwhile, Hanna lives her parallel life of relative freedom and prosperity in the West, apart from those she loves. Communications between East and West are sparse, censored carefully and at times cut off.

Historical snippets interspersed throughout the book illuminate  tensions between the Soviet bloc and Western world during the Cold War. Willner includes both successful and tragic escape attempts along with reactionary inhumane clampdowns by the East German government.

As a reader, I longed for the wall to topple, for the regime to end, and this family to reunite. The story resonated with me because as a child, I corresponded with a pen-pal from the DDR.  I remember feeling sad that people who lived in East Germany weren’t free to visit.  The book reminded me of relatives I barely knew, enduring life in that time and place, and of those who risked all for a better life.  I wrote about the latter in my book, Threaten to Undo Us.

An important book

Willner’s book stands as testament to those who might otherwise think that controlling a populace in the name of their ideals, is worthwhile endeavour. Spoiler warning: it is NOT. People long for freedom. The desperation and pain of the characters is palpable, and yet determination of the individual human spirit to shines through. Forty Autumns is a compelling and important read.

May 30, 2018
by Rose Scott
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Movie Review: The Zookeeper’s Wife

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Antonina, the zookeeper’s wife, is a woman who loves deeply—her husband Jan, their son and the animals they care for in the Warsaw Zoo. Every day families in the community enjoy the zoo, until 1939, when the Nazi assault on Poland begins.

When the zoo is bombed and the elephants, zebras and exotic cats escape their enclosures, the German army is there to shoot them, in spite of Antonina’s protests. Everything the Zabinski’s have worked for is about to be destroyed. During a lull from the fighting, the townspeople return a few of the roaming escapees to the zoo, but the zoo is now under the jurisdiction of the Third Reich. Lutz Heck, a friend, and now Hitler’s chief zoologist comes to bear the news that their zoo is to be liquidated, and that as a favour, he is willing to give sanctuary to their prime breeding stock in the Berlin zoo and return them later.

Lutz tends to come around when Jan is absent and Antonina faces more than one dilemma, when she realises that accepting favours and trusting an SS officer comes at a high cost. Lutz must not suspect what is really going on, when Jan Zabinski becomes aware of the conditions in the nearby Warsaw ghetto and the Zabinskis agree to hide a Jewish friend. With Lutz Heck’s unwitting permission, the couple embark on a daring scheme, ironically involving pigs, as a cover for their covert operation as a way station for people escaping the ghetto.

Danger is at every turn and decisions are made out of desperation to save lives. Suspense is kept high throughout, but interspersed with tender moments. This is an emotionally charged movie. Chastain, as Antonina, portrays a unique mix of emotional fragility, yet deep strength; both possibly the result of childhood trauma during the Russian revolution. Heldenbergh, playing Jan, is a good foil for Chastain’s character: stalwart and strong. His jealousy is believable.

The movie raises the ethical choices that one must face when a regime as corrupt and immoral as the Nazis takes power. What was once distasteful, even unthinkable, becomes normal under desperate circumstances. Do other moral decisions matter, when it comes to saving the life of another human being?

Many people in post-war Poland did not get their property or estates back. SPOILER:  the Zabinski’s were a notable and deserving exception.  Other movie viewers may not notice this omission, but the Soviet occupation of Poland, with its political upheaval and violence after the war was pretty much ignored. For the sake of story arc, I will forgive this flaw. The Zookeeper’s Wife is a worthwhile and educational movie.

WARNING: This movie contains violence, brief partial nudity and suggestive scenes. Recommended only for adult audiences.

 

January 26, 2018
by Rose Scott
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Confronting a Holocaust denier with truth

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A young man stopped by my book table to chat. I explained that my World War Two novel wasn’t about the Holocaust and he perked up.

“Honestly, I think the six million figure is probably a gross exaggeration anyway,” he said with a casual shrug.

I took a deep breath before I spoke. He was, young. Maybe 20.

Majdanek fences

It is a problem I have run into repeatedly while scouring the web, looking for information on the German expulsions and postwar camps. A lot of stuff makes me cringe. Just because the German expulsions are a little told narrative within the Second World War, does not render the Holocaust untrue or grossly exaggerated.

But apparently there are still deniers out there and I was looking right at one of them.

The right of free speech is widely debated. If an identifiable group can show they are oppressed in some way, then speech must not be hateful against them. More and more groups are coming forward as “oppressed,” which presents a dilemma. Should free speech ever be curtailed?

Personally, I think free speech is of such great human value, it should rarely be trumped. The real way to fight error and false ideas is with education and evidence, held up to the light and examined by honest debate. The truth will rise to the top and ideas that can’t stand closer scrutiny will be discarded by reasonable people.  Hard facts married with civil and respectful discussion is the way, not finger pointing and name-calling.

I have to admit that when confronted with this young man’s absurd statement, I was tempted to write him off as ignorant. But perhaps that wasn’t entirely his fault. Clearly his education was lacking, so perhaps I could help fill in the gaps.

“Have you ever been to Europe?” I asked, trying to keep my voice level. As I suspected, his answer was “no.” It is so much easier to believe in a massive conspiracy, when the event in question took place on another continent, almost a lifetime ago.

“I have,” I said. “And I’ve seen a gas chamber.”

Gas chamber

I told him about my visit to Majdenek, a Nazi death camp in Poland.

At the close of the war, the SS fled this camp, leaving it in near pristine condition.  I described a massive monument, near the crematorium sheltering a pile of human ashes.

Indentations, like ditches mark the ground where the bodies of shooting victims had decomposed. Although we were unable to view inside the buildings, as we had arrived late in the day, we were told one of them was filled with the shoes of the victims of that one camp. Visiting that camp is an experience I will not forget and I tried to get across the enormity of what I saw— clearly indicating the death of thousands in that one camp alone. Furthermore, the Germans were renowned for meticulous record keeping. Approximately 300,000 were interned at that camp during the war. In addition to other prisoners, 56,000 Jewish prisoners with names recorded perished at this one camp.

Monument of ashes at Majdenek

Crematorium at Majdanek

 

 

 

Do not tell me the Holocaust didn’t happen or was grossly exaggerated

It is an uncomfortable, historical fact, evidenced by physical places and objects, documentation and surviving witnesses. Unpopular as it is in the post-modern mindset, truth is truth and the multiple similar experiences of different people, combined with historical records make up history.

As an author, I see revealing truth as my mandate. The young man didn’t say much in reply, but if he went away thinking, I believe I did my job.

 

 

October 20, 2017
by Rose Scott
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Book Review: We don’t talk about that

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We don’t talk about that is a fitting title for the memoir of a woman who lost her childhood, home and innocence to a war that extended into what should have been peacetime.

A colourful cast of relatives inhabit life on the farm in Roeder’s early life; back when cars, machinery and hot running water were novelties in European village life. Even during the 1930’s one begins to understand that ordinary Germans were nearly powerless to speak out against the ruling Nazis. To do so, was to invite disaster on your family and standing in the community. Though Roeder’s father was not a Nazi, like most men of that generation, he was drafted into the army, leaving the women to eke out their existence in the family home.

But the worst was yet to come. As the World War Two drew to a close, occupying Russian soldiers murdered neighbours and raped women. Their calls of “Frau Komm” sent women of all ages into hiding.

Forced into servitude on their own property after the war, Roeder tells of their life under the new communist authorities, including occasional acts of kindness and moments of joy. The family were just getting used to their new way of life, when everything changes again. Imagine being given only a few moments notice to evacuate your home. All you have is a baby stroller, a handcart and four daughters, one of whom is an infant. What do you bring? Where will you stay and how will you feed your children?

Roeder’s family joined millions of others expelled from their homes in the German states of Pomerania and Prussia. The political decision to hand the territories over to Poland had devastating and tragic consequences for those who made the journey west. As the eldest child in the family, Roeder is initiated into adulthood at the age of 11. Without her resourcefulness the family may not have survived.

Roeder recounts her story with such vivid detail it is truly like being there. She mixes it all—the good, the bad and the horrendous, so that it rings true.  You can’t make this stuff up. It is a living nightmare that no child should have to live through. The reader cannot help but gain new understanding of these little examined events of history and the long term effects of trauma on those who lived through it.

The author’s first language was German, so the writing is not perfect. But a few odd sentences and incorrect grammar do little to mar this important story. In a way, I concluded that these quirks add to her authentic voice. We don’t talk about that is an important book and the emotion and intensity of the story will stay with you.

 

 

July 11, 2017
by Rose Scott
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Book Review: On Hitler’s Mountain

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On Hitler's MountainWhat is it that caused ordinary Germans to follow  Hitler? Why did they go along with his policies and how was it that they didn’t stop the  murder of six million Jews? Only the people that lived in Nazi Germany can truly say and they are now few and far between. After those years, many chose not to speak of them again.

Irmgard A. Hunt, a child during Nazi Germany, is a rare voice who was able and chose to share her unique story.  Hunt’s memoir is that of an ordinary child and her family, living at an extraordinary time and place. Her childhood home in Berchtesgaden, Bavaria, was in close proximity to Hitler’s summer retreat in the mountains and afforded her a view of the road up the mountain. She watched Hitler and prominent Nazi officials drive up to the extravagant mountain estate. As  a young child, she even once sat on Hitler’s lap. Her parents were proud of the celebrity this encounter brought the family. For Hunt however, meeting Der Führer coincided with recurring nightmares of a devilish monster with a forked tongue and fangs sitting heavily upon her chest.

Many of her family, including her mother were Nazi supporters. Among her classmates sat the children of Nazis. Hunt and her sister were immersed in Nazi ideology taught at the school and the after school Kindergruppe program; a prelude to the Hitler youth. She participated with typical German obedience, at least for a time. As Hunt grows older, she also grows wiser. A keen observer of human nature and the inconsistencies of the system, she began to reason out its flaws as the destructive nature of the regime played out.

Hunt’s memoir is written without aggrandizement or excuses. She is no hero; her voice that of an ordinary schoolgirl. But it is the very ordinariness of Hunt’s lower middle class family, that is the most revealing and in a sense most chilling. She states, “the seemingly petty details of these people’s lives are actually often symbolic and always telling…in the continuing struggle to understand the past—both personally and as a lesson from history—these details are too important not to be recorded and thus preserved” (p.1).

In this, Hunt has done an admirable job preserving not only her own past but the past of the society in which she lived, going back as far as the Weimar Republic, for it is there that the seeds of Nazism first took hold.  She has taken great pains to show the crushing poverty and hopelessness of her family and other middle class people trying to eke out a living during the 1930’s. Hitler’s promise of an economic miracle allowed him to gain a stronghold among the masses and ignore the less savoury aspects of his program. Through the Party system, it became almost impossible, even for those with strong convictions, to stand against the regime. Much to his detriment, Hunt’s own grandfather tried to do so, against the wishes of much of his own family.

Wisely, Hunt does not end her narrative in 1945 at the close of the war, but takes us into devastated post-war Germany, under American occupation. One of her keen observations, is the conspiracy of silence around the war years.  Most of those she knew refused to honestly reflect on the recent past or speak of their part in it.

Hunt’s viewpoint is up close and personal, gleaning not only from her own recollections but the memories of her relatives and family friends, who were adults at the time. Valuable insights into totalitarianism are to be gained. The astute reader will be able to glimpse not only himself or herself but those around them, within these pages.

June 1, 2017
by Rose Scott
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Book Review: Under the Silk Hibiscus

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Heart Mountain sounds like a lovely place, but it is a Japanese internment camp. Quarters are cramped, bare and cold. Food and employment are in short supply. Along with other Japanese Americans from San Jose, Nathan Mori and his family have been relocated to Wyoming for the duration of the Second World War.  Nathan’s father, accused of being a spy, has been sent elsewhere and Nathan’s older brother Ken is too busy flirting with girls and trouble to shoulder the burden of their sick mother and crippled younger brother. Nathan longs for the loving home he once knew, but Aunt Kazuko’s dramatic pronouncements and authoritarian attempts to rule the roost are a poor substitute. The only bright spot in the camp is Lucy and the sound of her beautiful voice, but her eyes are on Ken, not Nathan.

In addition to fetching, carrying and caring for young Emiko and Tom, one of Nathan’s responsibilities is to look after a gold watch. When the precious family heirloom disappears, Nathan is devastated. In one rash moment, he makes a choice that has consequences, not only for himself but for others in the camp.

Eventually the war comes to an end, but Nathan’s losses are a permanent fixture.  Up against prejudice and discrimination, the Mori family struggles to make ends meet. Nathan’s longing to return to life as it once was, or to make a new life  hardly seem  feasible.  Can he move beyond grief and regrets and find love and faith again?

Alice Wisler’s Under the Silk Hibiscus is a tender portrait of a family’s survival through the toughest of times. Both a historical novel and a love story, woven with threads of faith and forgiveness, this book rings true with authentic, believable characters. A moving five star read.