The twentieth century was so confusing. At its beginning, there were still Ottoman Turks. Scientists only kinda-sorta knew what atoms were, and people still died of strep throat. Women couldn’t vote – pretty much anywhere.* The general belief among Americans and Europeans in 1901 was that the world was perfectible; many expected to see a world free from suffering and war within their own lifetimes. But under the surface, everything was nuts. Gavrilo Princip – who later shot Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, precipitating World War I – was five years old in 1901. Other little nascent volcanoes simmered unnoticed around the globe: Adolf Hitler was twelve years old that year, Stalin was twenty-three, Franco was nine. Hirohito was born in that very year – 1901, the year Queen Victoria died and left her dozens of grandchildren alone to duke out their sibling rivalries all over Europe for the next fifty years.
(*Note: Exceptions are New Zealand, the Pitcairn Islands, and the Isle of Man, all of which granted women the right to vote in the nineteenth century. You go, isolated former British colonies!)
I watched a fair bit of CNN yesterday and today, and I almost felt as if the twentieth century were still going on. I mean – the Russians? Who even thinks about them these days? I’d add Israel’s invasion of Gaza to this list too, but invasions of Gaza have a certain timelessness to them, don’t they? As I start to type the word intifada, it occurs to me how much the English language has matured since 1901. It’s taken its world tour and come back wiser and sadder. When I hear words like intifada and jihad, like détente and junta, like mujahidin and kamikaze and apartheid, I hear a little voice in my head that reads aloud from Orwell: “Oceania was at war with Eurasia and in alliance with Eastasia. In no public or private utterance was it ever admitted that the three powers had at any time been grouped along different lines… Oceania was at war with Eurasia: therefore Oceania had always been at war with Eurasia. The enemy of the moment always represented absolute evil, and it followed that any past or future agreement with him was impossible.”
(Another note: Did you know that when the 20th century began it was still against the law for a sitting U.S. president to travel abroad? This law was abolished to allow Theodore Roosevelt to travel to the Panama Canal Zone in 1906 – and Roosevelt took office in – you guessed it – 1901.)
For all of these reasons, a child makes an ideal narrator for a novel about some of the more dramatic global events of the twentieth century. In reality, the history of these years bewildered everyone, but children are allowed to be bewildered without coming off as stupid; adults are not. The child-narrator has been done many times, of course, in To Kill a Mockingbird and in Bless Me, Ultima and – two decades before the twentieth century began – in Huck Finn. In Ella Leffland’s Rumors of Peace, the narrator is Suse Hansen, who is ten years old when Pearl Harbor is bombed. Suse is smart but not knowledgeable, and she is entirely unaware of the scale of the world. She spends the four years of the United States’ involvement in the war in the constant expectation that Hirohito’s army will turn up one day, marching down main street of her small industrial town of Mendoza, California (for Bay Area residents, this is based on Leffland’s hometown of Martinez, over near the Carquinez Bridge). She definitively hates the “Japs,” in spite of her parents’ deep sympathies for Japanese Americans who are relocated to internment camps. She studies the headlines so obsessively that she is moved into the “slow” class in school. She knows almost nothing, but she feels everything.
All of that said, Rumors of Peace is not really a novel about the war. In some ways, the war is a mere catalyst for the changes that take place in Suse between 1941 and 1945, and most of these changes are connected to the fact that Suse is moved to the slow class because all she thinks of is the war. (I found this plot point fairly hilarious, and when I told Jill about it, she said, “You know, that could have been you.” She was right – I was pretty obsessed with the Gulf War back in 1991.) First, Suse meets Peggy, a social shapeshifter who is at home everywhere and nowhere, who becomes her first real friend. Her friendship with Peggy leads Suse to a friendship with Peggy’s sister Helen Maria, a self-defined “genius” who is about to graduate from U.C. Berkeley at the age of fifteen and who is equal parts snob, condescending guru, and good, generous soul who is probably the truest friend Suse has in this novel (Helen Maria is also a tremendously well-drawn character, as are all of the secondary characters. Leffland really has a gift for characterization). Friendship with Helen Maria leads to Suse’s infatuation with Egon, a graduate student at Berkeley who dates Helen Maria for a while and with whom Suse exchanges fervent letters.
Suse spends most of this novel searching desperately for a bandwagon to jump on. “We’re supposed to hate the Japs, right?” is the unstated (and sometimes the stated) subtext of everything Suse says. “Oh, and the Germans! We hate them, don’t we?” Occasionally Suse’s overtures are met with enthusiasm, but more often she finds that her peers are mostly indifferent, and her parents and the young adults she meets through Helen Maria respond with something more like “Wellllll” – as they should. And of course there’s dramatic irony everywhere, such as when Suse tosses the reader an offhand remark that she had “hated” her previous art teacher, but that this year’s teacher “didn’t frown and pinch her lips when you sketched Hitler being riddled by bullets against the Chancellery wall. [Her new teacher] said, “Make his torso bigger if he’s falling forward” (322).
This novel illustrates what Ambrose Bierce meant when he said that “War is God’s way of teaching Americans geography.” War teaches Suse other things too – including, eventually, compassion. The structure of the novel follows the historical structure of American involvement in the war, which is to say that it begins with Pearl Harbor and ends with Hiroshima and Nagasaki. “A whole city of people,” Suse reflects, “ceasing to exist. And who had done it? Not the Nazis or the Japs themselves, but us, the good ones, the ones we were supposed to have faith in, who talked of constructive thought, creativeness, cooperation, drawing the good out of people. They themselves were the black beetles. I felt my throat ache; the sky blurred and sparkled. I closed my eyes so Helen Maria couldn’t see them” (381).
This novel – recently reissued after years out of print – should be in every middle and high school library, and it should be considered for syllabi and summer reading lists as well. It doesn’t fall neatly into an easily-digestible package like To Kill a Mockingbird, but it’s just as good a book, appropriate for students and for adult readers as well.
Oh, and P.S. I still want Ella Leffland to marry my dad.