Rumors of Peace by Ella Leffland is a more realistic rendition of what’s by far a more permanent aspect of the human condition than its more commonly-encountered inversion.
The work falls quite rightly in the thick of the Bildungsroman genre, a type of novel about human maturation, development, growth (i.e., about the coming-of-age) – a fascinating subject in its own right and ofttimes, for that very reason, the predominant theme of such novels.
It would be a mistake, though, to regard Ms. Leffland’s work as though it were merely about her protagonist’s passage into adulthood. The truth is that Suse Hansen – a nine-year-old when we first meet her (which coincides with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor) and only thirteen when the novel ends – is as much of an adult as any of us, perhaps even more so!
That’s perhaps the greatest irony of it all: while we’ve been made privy to an immature little girl’s responses, we are being treated all along to what ought to be our responses to the very situations she encounters.
What makes Ms. Leffland’s grand irony even more poignant is that we’re so unaware of this Jedi mind trick that it catches us entirely by surprise.
Indeed, the whole gamut of Suse Hansen’s variegated responses to a war raging all over the Pacific and Europe is symptomatic of the right and wrong kind of thinking.
It is so symptomatic and interwoven with how we think instead of how we ought to think, that it has the uncanny effect of making us, the adults, unbeknownst to ourselves, identify with this teen and, whether we want to or not, adopt her worldview.
Since that’s the novelist’s intent, let’s explore how exactly Mrs. Leffland makes good on her promise.
Suse’s initial response to the Japanese action was lukewarm. Hawaii, she’s told, was “very far from the streets of Mendoza, with the huger Pacific in between,” so insofar as she’s concerned, the war isn’t real. And it was likewise with the much-earlier German invasion of Europe, including Denmark, her parents’ place of birth: it, too, was but “a purple dot on her brother’s world map”; and empathizing as she would have liked with their sorrow, she “could not feel the terribleness [of it all] in [her] bones.”
Indeed, as we first meet Suse, we find her so engrossed in her little world, so self-absorbed, that for all intents and purposes, the small town of Mendoza had virtually defined it all. It alone, for all its sore spots and a great many perplexities, served as the sole source of her self-contentment and her inner composure.
These circumstances made Suse somewhat immune to disturbing news-bulletins pouring over the radio about the atrocities of war or the horrendous pictures of it in Life. Such as “the bodies of a potato-digging family being dead and blood-splattered in a Polish field” — simply because only “Mendoza was what existed [and what] was real.”
That was Suse’s intransigent worldview, and parochial as it may have been, it would inform and color all her opinions on virtually any subject whatever – from war to anything else.
Things began to change, however, and rapidly so, once the effects of the war would start trickling-in and affect the sleepy town of Mendoza.
Suddenly, there were soldiers in or about town, all gung-ho and ready for action. Garrisons and barracks and training camps — all began sprouting like weeds in the hot summer sun.
And then, there were the public notices from Sheriff O’Toole to take all necessary precautions against possible air-raids and all other forms of attack, followed by mandatory drills in schools, churches, and all diverse places where people would congregate or worship.
Finally, there was this sudden notice to all Japanese-Americans, all long-time residents of Mendoza and outskirts, farmers, shopkeepers, what have you. They were to sell all their property, businesses, and houses, whatever they possessed, within the next forty-eight hours, and then, they were all to be shipped to detention camps to make sure there’d be no “fifth column.”
Even the Italians suffered the indignity. Although most of Mendoza’s citizens, all law-abiding to boot, were Italians, each became a suspect.
Naturally, all this had altered everyone’s perception of how real the war was even in Mendoza, even though it was being fought far away from Mendoza, oceans and continents away. And Suse Hansen was no exception!
Once the reality of war sinks in, there grows in Suse a feeling of resentment — indeed, of hatred, too. Resentment, because the little world she lived in was no longer a cocoon. Hatred of “the enemy” – of Japanese in particular – for having changed that world forever.
Her hatred would extend to include all Japanese, even the locals. Even though she didn’t exactly disapprove of the action by “the authorities” to ship them all to detention camps, she considered it a “measly [and] pointless move [lest] they … escape from the camps and spread to the countryside [with their wireless radio-sets] to work from there. Those who tried to kill you should be killed,” she thought.
There were exceptions, for sure. Like the local Japanese florist, or the baker “with a thick German accent.” Both had escaped Suse’s tailormade concept of “an enemy.” Or the Pelegrino family, especially brothers Mario and Ezio, both of whom she had befriended when in school.
So yes, there were things that didn’t fit Suse’s rather neat conceptual schema, but she had devised an ingenious method to help her deal with these anomalies. She called it a “storeroom” – “a place in my mind . . . where I must shove things that didn’t fit” – the novelist’s apt metaphor for the act of compartmentalization or, if you push to concept to the limit, for the means of dealing with cognitive dissonance.
This hurdle over, there remained a matter of conquering shame – shame born of utter powerlessness, of one’s inability to control their immediate future and circumstances. Well, the feelings of guilt and of personal inadequacy, of having been rendered impotent, were more than compensated for by those of pure and unadulterated hatred.
In hatred, in cultivating hatred, Suse discovered newly-found freedom. Having been stirred by a picture in Life of the London children, bravely “playing checkers while … wait[ing] for the bombs to fall,” her first meaningful act of identification with victims of war beyond America’s shores, she erupts with a powerful soliloquy: “I hated them. Forever, with my whole being . . . I was still frightened, but differently now. As though with control. And I no longer felt ashamed.”
Try as we may, we can neither find fault with Suse Hansen’s response as she happens to undergo a “change of heart” once the effects of war virtually transform her little community. Nor can we dissociate ourselves from them easily as though they were somehow strange or unnatural. The truth is, once we give the matter some thought, we can’t discern how different our reaction and responses would be if we had been Suse’s shoes.
Just think! The elements that typically define a crisis and govern our responses are all-present and in full force! And here, we must consider such things as the immediacy of the event and how it impacts us personally.
There is the resulting paranoia, for instance, if we perceive the event as posing an immediate threat to our security and safety. There’s also the vilification of “the enemy.” There is even a “storeroom” of sorts to help us deal with all manner of “inconvenient truths.”
Well, Suse Hansen happens to respond to each of these no differently than any of us would; as a matter of fact, she does us one better!
For one thing, her empathy with “the London children” transcends our usual-by-now range of responses.
Perhaps the television is to blame for this, or maybe the media, but all conflicts near or far, even human disasters, are perceived nowadays as distant events only to be marveled at in our living rooms’ comfort –unless they affect us personally. Only then do they elicit in us the kind of empathy and sense of identification with human suffering that comes close to Suse’s reaction to the picture in Life.
The different stages of Suse’s emotional and intellectual development and the progression of her subsequent responses to all facets of war serve as a mirror. And it reflects what our responses ought to be if we were to take the subject of warfare as seriously as she did and pursue it with her kind of tenacity and determination on all levels – intellectual, emotional, and moral.
Consider, for instance, her constant search for answers from the few kindred souls whose instincts and intellect she trusted — people who were grown-ups compared to her. Or her frequent trips to the library, where she’d immerse herself in an in-depth study of such diverse subjects as poetry, the Jews, or socialism, to better understand what her “more mature” interlocutors were talking about whenever she’d find their answers less than satisfactory.
Though barely a teen, Suse displays here the kind of fortitude and state of mind that would be most commendable in any adult. Indeed, no matter how wise or mature, there’s always someone more discerning and more mature than you, someone in whom you’d want to confide and share your innermost thoughts and fears. And it’s especially true when it comes to such existential questions as to why there are wars or the meaning of life or why we’re here.
All told, it’s a testimonial to the kind of person Suse Hansen is about to become.
I will conclude in Part Two.