Poet and novelist Svoboda (Tin God, 2006, etc.) chronicles her uncle’s odyssey in occupied Japan and unearths some troubling truths about the U.S. military.
The disjointed nature of her memoir may be connected to the reluctance the author admits feeling when her aging father and uncle pestered her to write about the latter’s 18-month stint as an MP at the close of World War II. Svoboda wasn’t particularly close to Uncle Don, and she wasn’t sure that recording his memories of the Nakano stockade outside Tokyo was going to alleviate the depression he’d slipped into in the spring of 2004, as reports on prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib began to surface. But then he committed suicide, and the author began listening more intently to the tapes he had sent her. Was there a secret he had been holding inside all these years? Calls to other veterans and a trip to Japan helped Svoboda unravel the story, which she tells in fits and starts, alternating her narrative with excerpts from her uncle’s tapes. In 1946, Nakano was the Eighth Army stockade; it housed military personnel convicted of various crimes and waiting to be shipped home to serve their sentences. Most of the prisoners were black men, who were convicted at far higher rates than white soldiers. (Svoboda discovered that 20 of the 21 reported executions in the Pacific during the war were of African-American soldiers.) At one point, Uncle Don remembered, the head captain announced that the stockade was overcrowded and they would begin executing prisoners sentenced to death. Other vets contacted by the author confirmed that a gallows was built, but records of the actual executions were extremely difficult to track down. In Japan, she doggedly asked residents of Nakano what they remembered, and their replies helped her craft this tortuous look at a desperate, shameful era.
An awkwardly self-conscious but affecting blend of history and memoir.