In this debut historical novel, a girl and her family face harsh conditions in a German-American internment camp in Texas during World War II.
The daughter of a piano teacher and a math professor at the local college, Trudy Herman is a studious girl in sixth grade in Somerville, Virginia. She sorely misses her dead grandfather, a gentle man who taught her how to find the Pleiades in the night sky, but otherwise she leads a happy, normal life. That is, until three grim men show up at the Hermans’ front door, search their home, and seize Trudy’s father, a German immigrant, for reasons they won’t say. Trudy’s life falls apart. Her mother becomes a shrunken, fearful woman, and all of Trudy’s friends and neighbors shun her except for her classmate Eddie Gutschmidt, whose father was also taken. Eventually, Trudy, her mother, and Eddie’s family are forced to travel by train to Traybold, Texas, the site of a German-American internment camp. They carry on a reduced existence within the confines of a barbed-wire fence. Trudy finds comfort in books, Eddie’s friendship, and an old, cheerful woman named Ruth Schuler, but she is shocked by the guards’ cruelty toward “krauts” like her. Finally, Trudy’s father arrives and the family is reunited. Once the war is over, the Hermans end up in Mississippi, where they must rebuild their lives. Beck tends to tell more than show Trudy’s emotions (“Three wooden chairs were placed in a line….Two were occupied by Mom and me, and the third chair, where Dad should have been sitting, sat empty. My mood matched the room’s gray, and I felt lonely”). Still, the world through Trudy’s eyes is astonishingly vivid, from the fetid scent of a house her family stays in to the sight of a sandhill crane on a riverbank. And the sensitive and scrupulous protagonist is cleareyed on how people can adapt to anything, even internment, but maintains that the experience warps everyone: “Our lives took on a normalcy, but that troubled me even more. How could being kept inside a barbed-wire fence like cattle feel normal?”
Told with deep empathy, this tale illuminates a little-known but relevant aspect of U.S. history and deftly explores privilege and injustice in their many forms.