Guam, 1944. Rather than participating in a battle already lost, rather than committing hara-kiri, rather than giving himself up to the Amerikans, Lance Corporal Isamu Seto disappears into the jungle.
Guam, 1972. Fifteen-year-old Kiko is missing his older brother, who’s in Vietnam. He’s mooning over a girl in his class. His grandfather is angrily spiraling into dementia, and Kiko is both saddened by his Tatan’s rapid decline and resentful that his parents suddenly expect him to be available to babysit all of the time.
Soon, the two of them—a confused boy on his way to becoming a man, and a desperate man who’s lived the last 28 years in fear, hunger and guilt—will end up face-to-face, and there’s no telling whether or not they’ll both survive.
Considering the broad range of emotionally charged issues and events that it deals with—PTSD, the aftermath of sexual assault, isolation, grief, despair, rage—Christine Kohler’s No Surrender Soldier left me cold. There certainly are aspects of the book to appreciate and admire: most notably the depiction of the Guamanian culture, which combines aspects of the various colonial powers that have controlled the island over the years with the indigenous Chamorro culture that was there originally and is there still. The cast reflects that multicultural heritage—Kiko is Chamorro, as is his crush at school, while his best friend Tomas is of Japanese descent—as does, and often in a stomach-growling inducing way, the food.
Unfortunately, there were a couple of key elements that didn’t work. First, much of the dialogue is clunky due to expository information, like when Kiko says “Now he’s calling for Nana Bihu, and she’s been dead four years” to his parents…even though I’d assume that they know the timeline of family deaths just as well as he does. Some of the information relayed in that way is necessary, and some isn’t, but the awkwardness of the way it’s conveyed kicked me out of the story over and over again. Secondly, and more problematically, while the characters’ emotions and reactions rang true on an intellectual level, I never connected emotionally with anything in this book. Not the friendship story, not the first love, not the fear, the guilt, the loneliness, not even the DOG IN DANGER. Overall, while a lot in No Surrender Soldier worked on a technical level, it didn’t work on a gut level or a heart level. And for me, those are the levels that make for truly memorable reads.
Going forward! Here are two older titles about the aftermath of World War II that I’ll be hunting down soon:
The Red Shoe, by Ursula Dubosarsky: This one is about three sisters in Cold War–era Australia, about family secrets and a Russian spy and the instability of their WWII-vet father. The reviews were quite mixed—PW starred it, Kirkus was lukewarm, and SLJ was not a fan—which makes me all the more curious.
I Had Seen Castles, by Cynthia Rylant: This one dates back to the early ’90s, but HELLO, CYNTHIA RYLANT. It’s about a guy who enlists because he’s super gung-ho about fighting the Nazis, but who happens to fall in love with a conscientious objector. According to what I’ve read about it, it deals with the idea of the enemy as human, which is one of the hardest—but for me, also the most satisfying—arcs to be found in war stories.
As always, recommend ’em if you’ve got favorites!
If she isn't writing Bookshelves of Doom or doing her librarian thing, Leila Roy might be making stuff for her Etsy shop while re-watching Veronica Mars, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Babylon 5, Black Books or Twin Peaks. Well, that or she’s hanging out on Twitter. Or both.