Rumors of Peace by Ella Leffland (a more realistic rendition of what’s by far a more permanent aspect of the human condition than its more commonly-encountered inversion!) 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) – an important subject in its own right and ofttimes, for that very reason, the predominant theme of such novels.
It would be a mistake, however, to regard Ms. Leffland’s work as though it were merely about her protagonist’s passage into adulthood. The truth of the matter 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 we’re done – is as much of an adult as any of us, perhaps even more so!
And that’s perhaps the greatest irony of it all – that while we’ve been made privy to responses of an immature little girl, we are being treated all along to what ought to be our own responses to the very situations she herself encounters. What makes Ms. Leffland’s grand irony even more poignant, it’s 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 as well as in Europe is so symptomatic in fact of the right– as well as wrong kind of thinking, so interwoven with how we actually think as opposed to 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.
As that’s the novelist’s intent, let’s explore some of the ways in which Ms. Leffland makes good on her promise.
Suse’s initial response to the Japanese action was lukewarm. Hawaii, she was told, was “very far from the streets of Mendoza, with the huger Pacific in between;” so insofar as she was concerned, the war was there. 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 just “could not feel the terribleness [of it all] in [her] bones.”
Indeed, as we first meet Suse, we find her so engrossed in her own little world, so self-absorbed in fact, that for all intents and purposes, the little town of Mendoza had virtually defined it all. It alone, for all its sore spots and a great many incongruities, served as the sole source of her self-contentment and her inner composure.
All of which made her rather 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.” At any rate, that was Suse’s intransigent worldview; and parochial as it may have been, it would as good as inform and color all her opinions on virtually any subject whatever – from war to anything in between!
Things began to change, however, and rapidly so, once the effects of the war would start trickling-in and affect the sleepy if not complacent town of Mendoza. There were suddenly soldiers in or about town, all gung-ho and apparently ready for action. Garrisons and barracks and training camps, all began sprouting like weeds in a hot summer sun. 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 and the mandatory drills to be strictly observed in schools, churches and all diverse places where people would congregate or worship.
Finally there was this abrupt 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, only God know where, just to make certain there’d be no “fifth column.” Even the Italians weren’t spared the indignity, although the great majority of Mendoza’s citizens, all law-abiding to boot, were Italians; each came to be viewed with an air of suspicion.
Naturally, all this had altered everyone’s perception as to how real the war really 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 war became a reality to Suse, there built in her a natural feeling of resentment, and yes, of hatred, too. Resentment, because the little world she lived in was no longer a cocoon but had to be reckoned with instead. Hatred of “the enemy” – of Japanese in particular – for having changed that world forever. In fact, 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 ‘em all to detention camps, she considered it a rather “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.
Which isn’t to say there weren’t notable exceptions, like the local Japanese florist, or the baker “with a thick German accent,” both of whom had evaded Suse’s tailormade concept of “an enemy,” or the Pelegrino family, for that matter, 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 shame and of personal inadequacy, of having been rendered impotent, so to speak, were more than compensated for by those of pure and unadulterated hatred.
In hatred, in cultivating hatred, Suse discovered a 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 own 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 responses, especially as she happens to undergo a “change of heart” once the effects of war virtually transform her little community, nor can we really dissociate ourselves from them easily as though they were somehow strange or unnatural. In fact, once we give the matter some thought, we can’t really discern how different our own reaction and responses would be if we were put in Suse’s shoes.
Just think! All the elements which typically define a situation of crisis and, consequently, govern our responses to any or all such are all present and in full force! And here, we must include such things as the immediacy of the event, how exactly does it impact us personally? The resulting paranoia, if the event happens to be perceived as being “too close for comfort” (posing thus a significant threat to our own security and safety) and, what normally comes with it, the vilification of “the enemy” – 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! Her empathy, for one thing, with “the London children” transcends our usual-by-now range of responses. Perhaps the television is to blame for this, perhaps the media, but all conflicts near or far, even human disasters, are perceived nowadays as distant events only to be marveled at in the comfort of our living rooms –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 Suse’s own reaction to the picture in Life.
Indeed, the different stages of Suse’s emotional and intellectual development, as well as the progression of her subsequent responses to all facets of war, only mirror what our own responses ought to be if we were to take the subject of war as seriously as she did and pursue it with her kind of tenacity and determination on all levels – intellectual, emotional and moral.
Her incessant search, for instance, for answers from the few kindred souls whose instincts and intellect she trusted. People who, relative to her, were grown-ups, Helen Maria and Egon Kravitz, most notably, or her frequent trips to library, where she’d immerse herself in deep 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 — each of these testify to the kind of person Suse Hansen had become.
Though barely a teen, she displays the kind of fortitude and state of mind that would be most commendable in any adult, no matter how wise or mature, for there’s always someone who is wiser and more mature than you, someone in whom you’d want to confide and share your innermost thoughts and fears with – especially when it came to such existential questions as why are there wars or the meaning of life or why are we here.