On Thursday, October 13th, Jan Jarboe Russell was given the Award of Literary Excellence, presented by Gemini Ink, San Antonio's non-profit, literary arts center. Russell received the award not only because of her most recent publication, The Train to Crystal City: FDR's Secret Prisoner Exchange Program and America's Only Family Internment Camp During World War II, but also because of her work with Texas Monthly magazine, as well as other work that has been published in many notable publications, and her previous books that were either authored alone or in collaboration with others. I had the chance to sit and talk with Russell a few weeks before the gala where she was given the award, and I am forever grateful to have been able to learn more about her and her work.
Genre, Themes, History: This is a nonfiction novel that talks about the secret internment camp that was operated during World War II in Crystal City, Texas, from the years 1942-1947. It would be the attacks on Pearl Harbor that would spur then president Franklin Delano Roosevelt to order the rounding up of German, Italian, and Japanese people to be moved to internment camps all over the US. The camp in Crystal City was different in that it was the only family internment camp. Wives and children were moved down to Crystal City in order to be with the husbands and fathers that had been arrested months before, mostly on pure suspicion, and little evidence, of being sympathetic or supportive to the enemy cause of their home country. As Russell shows, there were some that were interned who would prove to be a threat, but for the most part, these were innocent people who simply wanted to live their lives. And Russell chooses to tell the story mostly from the point of view of two women who were young girls at the time, making Train to Crystal City one of few books to have stories about the war told from a female perspective. What makes Sumi and Ingrid's story even more tragic is that they were America-born citizens when they were interned with their families. And that also did not help them when it came time for the US government to negotiate exchanges with Germany and Japan for American Prisoners of War. So young children who grew up in the US were eventually sent to a country they knew little about, all because of fear and suspicion surrounding their fathers.
My Verdict: Of the few things I try to avoid more than fiction about WWII, it is nonfiction about WWII. With that being said, this is a fantastic book. I probably enjoyed it so much because it is about one of the aspects of WWII that many people do not know about. The camp in Crystal City was supposed to be a secret - many people who lived in the area at the time did not really know what it was for. And as Russell pointed out during our conversation, many of the people who stayed there that are still alive were young children then. And when the camp closed, many of the former inhabitants did not care to talk about or relive the experience. In detail that makes it clear that Russell did her research, the book not only presents the story of people like Sumi and Ingrid, but it also talks about the key political players of the time, including FDR, his wife Eleanor, J. Edgar Hoover, and later, former president Dwight D. Eisenhower, among others. If you want to look at a different aspect of WWII aside from what is normally written about in novels, then I highly suggest this book.
Favorite Moment: When persecuted Jews (albeit a small amount) are included in the number of people exchanged along with American POWs.
Recommended Reading: As mentioned, I do not read much nonfiction about WWII, but as for fiction, I recommend The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah, or Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly.