Eugene Weekly : Books : 3.27.08

Moral Duties After War
Hostilities end, but effects linger

THE SOUVENIR: A Daughter Discovers Her Father’s War, memoir by Louise Steinman. Hardcover, Algonquin Books, 2001; paperback, North Atlantic Books, 2008. $15.95.

My grandfather, a cardiologist, volunteered as a medic in the Philippines during and after WWII. Although I learned about his youth playing French horn and his experiences riding a horse to teach in a one-room schoolhouse in Kansas, not one word passed between us about WWII. Did he ever see combat? Did he enjoy being with the guys, away from his little kids and wife? Did he witness the results of atrocities? I don’t know.

Louise Steinman didn’t know such details about her father either — that he unwillingly left his pregnant wife, that he fought in one of the longest campaigns of the Pacific on Luzon in the Philippines. She didn’t know that the man who hated seeing his children cry “because it reminded him of the war,” who enforced only a few rules but enforced them thoroughly, wrote her mother hundreds of tender, lengthy, intense letters during his years away. She didn’t know that the father who never wanted to travel had been farther than she could imagine.

That is, she didn’t know it until her parents died and she cleaned out an old storage locker. “I identified a collection of odds and ends,” she writes. “At the bottom was a rusted metal ammo box. I tried to pick it up, but it was too heavy. I tried to open it, but the hasp was stiff.” When she and her husband finally pried the box open, she discovered the hundreds of letters — and a Japanese flag.

The discovery sent Steinman on journeys both emotional and physical. Reading the letters was like traveling through time to the point when her young father’s personality altered through the crucible of an unimaginably brutal war. And Steinman soon followed the letters to a history of the war in the Pacific — something her education hadn’t taught her much about.

The Souvenir, Steinman’s gorgeously thoughtful memoir of what she learned along the way, serves as the focal point of LCC’s smart Reading Together program. This year, the progam addresses the too-timely issue of “War: Survival, Loss, and Reconciliation.”

Reconciliation? Yes. Steinman wants to return the flag to the family of the dead Japanese soldier — though she does grow sensitive to the concerns of veterans of combat in the Pacific, one of whom tells her, “Your father is probably turning over in his grave right now.”

What she learns about the cruelty of the Japanese army, the harsh militarization of Japanese society during wars of aggression in Asia, surprises her, but she still wants to give the flag back. And she wants to visit the Philippines to find out exactly where her father fought and how bad it was. She writes brilliantly of her various journeys in this quick and compulsively readable book, slender yet packed with information and scenes of narrative and emotional drama.

In the afterword, she writes about meeting with groups of veterans from a variety of wars, including the many who have been injured in Iraq and Afghanistan. “Our returning soldiers … need us to listen and weep with them,” she says. “They need us to insist that our government provide the services that enable those who have risked their lives to re-enter the world they left behind and to live once again at peace with themselves and others. It is our moral duty.”

Take up the duty by attending events at LCC, reading the book, finding out what’s going on. Let’s not make this generation wait until they’re dead.   


“War: Survival, Loss, and Reconciliation”

Thursday, April 3

• “Eyes Wide Open Oregon: The Human and Economic Cost of War,” a multimedia art show, runs from 9:30 am to 5 pm in the LCC Center Building Cafeteria and Bristow Square on both days.

• 10 am: Steinman keynote speech, reading, Q&A and book signing. 102 CML (Building 19), LCC.

• 2 pm: Steinman informal Q&A and book signing. 102 CML, LCC.

• 7:30 pm: Steinman reading and book signing. Tsunami Books.


Friday, April 4

• 10 am: “Veteran Reintegration” panel discussion with Steinman and area veterans. 102 CML.

• 7:30 pm: “Defining the Struggle: Exploring War and Reconciliation in the Context of Social Injustice” panel discussion with Steinman and members of various diverse communities. UO Many Nations Longhouse.