We'd like to welcome two honored guests to LadyKillers today: Joanne Dobson and Beverle Graves Myers.
Joanne Dobson is the Agatha-nominated author of the Professor Karen Pelletier mystery series from Doubleday and Poisoned Pen Press. Her novels have been widely reviewed, including in the NEW YORK TIMES. In 2001 the adult-readers division of the New York Library Association named her Noted Author of the Year, as the writer whose books they most enjoyed recommending to their patrons. For many years Joanne was an English Professor at Fordham University, teaching American literature and creative writing. She now writes full-time and teaches writing at the Hudson Valley Writers Center in Sleepy Hollow, New York. Website: www.joannedobson.com
Beverle Graves Myers is a Kentucky native and retired psychiatrist who’s always loved stories and always asked “why.” Bev enjoys mixing murder and music in her Tito Amato Mysteries set in dazzling, decadent 18th-century Venice. Her Deadly Mischief is the latest title in the Tito Amato series. Bev, husband, and dog live in Louisville, Kentucky. Website: http://beverlegravesmyers.com
Joanne and Beverle are collaborating on a new series, New York in Wartime, that follows New York City through the challenges and triumphs of World War II. The series just debuted with FACE OF THE ENEMY, set in New York City in 1941 as the county goes to war.
When we first thought about writing a mystery series set in New York City during World War II, our heads were steeped in vague assumptions about life in America’s Wartime Central City. Assumptions that were quickly shattered.
We envisioned plucky girls drawing lines down the backs of their legs to imitate seams of the nylons that had become impossible to find. Plucky kids with little red wagons collecting scrap metal for the war effort. Plucky housewives stretching ration coupons and feeding their families on wartime meatloaf made of oatmeal and spam. Plucky old gentlemen prowling the streets and rooftops as air raid wardens. Plucky was the ticket, all right.
The men of fighting age, of course, were all brave, bold, and daring. They were Overseas, actually fighting the war.
Perhaps what intrigued us most, however, was that we knew there must be more that we weren’t being told, much more interesting stories, perhaps even more daring stories. And—what about shameful stories? Surely our nation wasn’t thoroughly noble in its conduct of the war; surely our populace wasn’t, without exception, selfless and uncomplaining. Yet, the history of the homefront seems to have come down through the years as a series of inspirational, bland, and, yes, plucky images, perhaps remnants of the rah-rah wartime ideology that had served to unite and inspire a fearful, imperiled country.
When Joanne first sat down to do research, she began by reading the New York Times for December 8, 1941. There, on the front page, a startling headline: ENTIRE CITY PUT ON WAR FOOTING/ Japanese Rounded Up by FBI, Sent to Ellis Island.
Now, wait a minute, with her Ph.D. in American literature, Joanne thought she’d been also fairly well educated about U.S. history. We conferred. We were both, of course, familiar with the government internment camps for Japanese-Americans on the West Coast, initiated in the spring of 1942. But we’d never heard anything about this “roundup” in New York City the night of the attacks on Pearl Harbor. The article read, in part:
The Japanese nationals were visited in their homes by FBI agents and detectives, told to take along a suitcase with traveling essentials, taken to a station house, booked as ‘prisoners of the Federal authorities,’ then removed in groups in patrol wagons and squad cars to the Federal Building at Foley Square. There, usually, their case histories were taken briefly, checked with official records already prepared, and then, in small groups, they were taken to the Barge Office at the Battery and to Ellis Island by ferry. . . .
Most, if not all, of the estimated 2,000 to 2,500 Japanese living in New York, some of whom are Japanese born in the United States, apparently were to be taken into custody . . .
Now, here, was a story: racial paranoia, mass arrests, widespread violation of civil rights! Here was the story, as a matter of fact, as it ended up becoming the central narrative of the first book in our New York in Wartime mystery series.
In FACE OF THE ENEMY, Masako Fumi Oakley, a Manhattan resident and a renowned avant garde artist, is arrested by the FBI and New York City detectives and detained on Ellis Island. As far as the Feds are concerned, Masako, aside from being Japanese, must be guilty of aiding and abetting the enemy. She has three strikes against her: her father is a highly placed Japanese diplomat; the windows of her Riverside Drive apartment overlook Hudson River shipping lanes; and—most damning of all—the non-representational “squiggles” of her “weird” modernist paintings are surely encrypted information aimed at Japanese partisans. Therefore, as the ham-fisted agent handling her “case” asserts, “Miss Fumi, you don’t have to tell me you’ve been spying for your father, Hisashi Fumi, Minister of Whatever—I already know.”
Oh, yes, we found other unexpected goodies that might be used in future books: for example, that the Brooklyn YWCA was training young women to become certified Commandos; that the OSS had an apartment on the Upper West Side, where they trained secret agents and saboteurs; that the Mafia may well have played a role in the burning of the troop ship the Normandie. But the immediate and wholesale detention of New York’s Japanese residents, including those born in the United States, was the most shocking—and perhaps so because it seems to have been tacitly suppressed in the teaching of American history. Some Germans and Italians were also picked up for questioning and detention, but selectively, case by case, not en masse according to ethnicity.
But America was not color-blind in the 1940s, and History, in omitting this episode from the common record, seems, with good reason, to be ashamed of it.