In 1972 Guam, fifteen-year-old Kiko would prefer to spend his time playing baseball, hanging out with his friend Tomas, and working up the nerve to ask out beautiful Daphne. But Kiko is dealing with serious family problems: his grandfather’s descent into dementia, his older brother’s tour of duty in Vietnam, and the rumors he starts to hear about his mother being raped during the Japanese occupation of Guam. When Kiko discovers a “straggler”--a Japanese soldier who never surrendered at war’s end--hiding in the jungle near his home, his anger comes to a head and he contemplates taking revenge on the man who symbolizes his family’s suffering.
Based on the strange but true tale of a Japanese soldier who hid out in the jungles of Guam for nearly three decades, Christine Kohler’s debut as a YA novelist is a real treat, a coming-of-age story told with skill and sensitivity. I really identified with the young male protagonist, and loved how Kohler wove his story together with the incredible story of the Japanese straggler’s life. I also appreciated how vividly Kohler described the customs in Kiko’s world: slaughtering a pig with his grandfather and participating in a saint-day festival become elaborate rituals that bind Kiko to his family and community. Like the best historical fiction, No Surrender Soldier isn’t only set in history but about history: how the past shapes us, clutches us, sometimes maims us. All three principal male characters in this novel--Kiko, his grandfather, and the Japanese straggler--are haunted by history in some way, fighting to escape traumatic pasts. The following passage powerfully illustrates Kiko’s struggle to come to grips with the reality and aftermath of war:
When the reporters wrote of war, it was those happy-ending stories that named people’s names in them. The kind of stories kids clipped and took to school for show-and-tell when they were little because they were proud their tatan and nana bihu [grandfathers and grandmothers] were heroes.
But not bad stuff. Not stories about murders, and people getting their heads chopped off, and people with body parts blown up by grenades the Japanese threw at unarmed [citizens]. Those people were all dead. No one reported their names. Not the textbooks, not the newspapers. Not unless they came out alive or a hero.
The blending of family history with world history--and the choice of a boy on the verge of adulthood to bring these historical strands together--make this novel emotionally resonant and morally satisfying. I'm thrilled to discover this new voice in YA fiction, and I look forward to more stories of conflict and courage from her!