Author Blog by Robert Black: The War in the Pacific, a Fictional Perspective
By Tom Kemnitz
My new novel attempts to help us realize our place in history.
The Eyes of the Enemy is both a war story and a family story, but with something extra as well. One thing I like about being an author is that I can bend the rules of reality in a story if it helps me explore a particular subject or theme. In my previous book, Unswept Graves (a companion to this volume), I sent my modern-day heroine Jasmine Wu into the past, to show her things she never knew about the trials her ancestors faced. This time, I send my heroine Kathy Syverson, a girl from the Nebraska home front during World War II, into the fury of the war’s Pacific theater. She sees the horrors her brother experiences during battle but also discovers the connections she has with her fellow human beings – even those on the other side of the conflict.
Putting the story together wasn’t easy, and it didn’t happen all at once. My first piece of the puzzle came all the way back in 2002, while I was visiting my parents. One evening, I found my mother going through a box of old letters and other papers. They were from her Uncle Lew, she explained – an odd explanation to me, because I didn’t remember ever hearing about an Uncle Lew before. He was my grandfather’s brother, and he’d been a US Army Lieutenant during World War II, killed in action on Leyte Island in the Philippines in November 1944. My mother was deciding which of his letters to contribute to a collection of wartime correspondence being assembled at the school where she taught.
I had already written Liberty Girl, a highly fictionalized but fairly straightforward account of my grandmother’s experience as a seventh grade girl in Baltimore during World War I. It didn’t take long for me to decide that approach wouldn’t work in the case of my mother’s family during World War II. I would have to do something else. And so I tucked the story of Uncle Lew away, as I often do when a potential idea crosses my path.
Fast-forward a few years, to 2006 when a Japanese TV movie I found online introduced me to the Battle of Okinawa, World War II’s last major engagement. The campaign to take Okinawa was long and terrible. At that point in the war, the Japanese strategy was to make the American advance so bloody and so costly that they’d choose to negotiate peace rather than conquer the Japanese Home Islands. But what made the battle especially horrible was the large number of civilian casualties. It’s estimated that 142,000 people – one-third of the civilian population – were killed. Many were victims of “collateral damage;” many others were killed when the Japanese army used them as human shields or threw them out of sheltering caves to fend for themselves, and still others committed suicide, too ashamed of their defeat or frightened by Japanese propaganda that portrayed Americans as savage brutes.
Those civilians were the ones who drew me to the battle and led me to think there might be a story waiting for me. I was especially interested in the stories of children who were caught in the conflict. Perhaps the best known of these are the accounts of the Himeyuri students and other Okinawan high school girls who were pressed into service as battlefield nurses. Another book I found told the story of a young girl who was given a makeshift white flag by the elderly couple sheltering her and told to go to the Americans. By the time she made it, she was being followed by an entire line of surrendering Japanese soldiers. If there was a book for me to write about Okinawa, it would involve characters like these children, because my readers could relate to them. And so I tucked their stories away as well.
It wasn’t until I’d written Unswept Graves that the pieces began fitting together. Unswept Graves gave me the fictional town of Helmerton, Nebraska, a small prairie community where a bit of magical realism had already been going on. It was just the setting I needed to bring an American main character into contact with children from across the battle lines. Helmerton had something else, too – the Fong family, who had originally emigrated from China. They gave me the chance to create a subplot that explored the anti-Asian prejudice that went on in America at the time. Research into the Nebraska home front turned up several more story elements for me to add, most notably the North Platte Canteen, which really did serve every troop train passing through its station from Christmas 1941 to April 1946.
Tying all these different threads together produced a story in which Kathy discovers her connections to all the people around her. At home, she has her family but also the other people in town, working together for the war effort and supporting one another through their troubles. In the war, she is tied to her brother, but she also discovers her place in the community of all children affected by war, stretching through history.
In our current times, we’ve been a part of one conflict or another for so long that many children have never known anything else. The national effort hasn’t been as all-encompassing as it was in World War II, but many children have had relatives fighting overseas, many have experienced prejudice against people associated with “the enemy,” and many have at least seen TV footage of the hardships children endure in the war zone. The Eyes of the Enemy gives our modern world some perspective, showing what these experiences were like in a different time and helping us realize our place in history.
Robert Black grew up in Indianapolis where his parents were both high school math teachers. He attended Park Tudor School in Indianapolis (also where his parents taught) from kindergarten through high school, graduating in 1982. He graduated from Vanderbilt University in 1986 with a bachelor’s degree in Mechanical Engineering and Mathematics. He has been writing for children since the mid-1980s, when he worked on the Nickelodeon TV series, You Can’t Do That On Television. When he’s not working as quality systems manager for Raypak Inc of Oxnard, CA, or writing, he enjoys singing in the church choir, hiking in the California foothills and taking pictures.
Praise for Black’s books: “Very highly recommended… quite special and unique approach to storytelling.” – Midwest Book Review
“An original, deftly crafted, inherently absorbing and thoroughly entertaining read for children ages 11 to 15, “The Eyes of the Enemy” by Robert Black is unreservedly recommended for personal reading lists, as well as school and community library Historical Fiction collections for young readers.” – Children’s Bookwatch