THE SOUVENIR: A DAUGHTER DISCOVERS HER FATHER’S WAR
NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW
DEC 2, 2001
By Diane Cole
A Daughter Discovers Her Father's War.
By Louise Steinman.
237 pp. Chapel Hill, N.C.:
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
NO matter how intently we gaze at old photograph albums chronicling the lives our parents led before we arrived, most of us can gain only the most truncated view of the particular events that shaped them. That knowledge -- or lack of it -- stings most painfully in the immediate aftermath of their deaths. By the same token, the yearning for answers can propel us on a quest to reconstruct, in our imagination, what we have lost in reality.
For Louise Steinman, the death of her father sent her on an actual journey, from her family's home in California to Japan, the Philippines and back again. Her stated purpose was to return to its owner a tattered silk Japanese flag her father had salvaged from the battlefield during his service as an infantryman in World War II in the Pacific. But her underlying goal was far more complex: to trace, and in a sense relive, the traumatic war experiences about which her father always remained mute but that had nonetheless marked and transformed him into the emotionally removed man she knew.
''Until I discovered my father's letters, I hadn't realized that the war had stolen him away before I was born,'' Steinman writes in her graceful, understated memoir, ''The Souvenir.'' And it was only by accident that she discovered those letters at all. In 1990, shortly after the deaths in quick succession of her father, then her mother, the task of sifting through her parents' possessions had fallen primarily to her, because of her close proximity to her parents' home near Los Angeles. It had taken weeks to empty the condominium of all traces of her parents' lives; only a basement storage bin of long-forgotten odds and ends remained.
Then, as in a fairy tale, she unearthed in that underground locker a mysterious artifact -- a rusted ammunition box that revealed hundreds of yellowing airmail envelopes, all addressed to Steinman's mother in her father's handwriting, all dated between 1941 and 1945 and postmarked from Army bases or overseas. All except one: a thin Manila envelope that contained a faded flag of Japan, brushed with ''Japanese characters, and speckled among them, faint drops of red-brown. Could they be blood?'' Feeling ''spooked,'' she quickly closed the box and tried to forget this unexpected and disturbing legacy.
Once opened, however, this Pandora's box of family history continued to haunt her. Moreover, as she gradually read her father's war letters, Steinman realized that the contents of the box need not serve as a curse but rather as a gateway to a new understanding of her father, an opportunity to ask, and at last receive an answer to, her family's taboo question: ''What was the war like, Dad?''
For Pvt. Norman Steinman, assigned to the 27th Infantry Regiment (the ''Wolfhounds'') of the 25th Infantry Division (the ''Tropical Lightning''), the war, at its core, was horror: 165 days of continuous combat fought to reclaim from the Japanese the beaches, plains, mountains and caves of the Philippines. But his letters home reported not just fear, loss, rage, deprivation and grit, but also a sweetness and passion he never showed his children -- perhaps, his daughter realizes, because those aspects of his personality withered with shell shock.
''Remember how I used to enjoy the beauties of nature, especially the heavens at night? . . . Well, it's so hard for me to enjoy anything now,'' Steinman's father wrote relatively early in the Luzon campaign. She comments, ''My exhilaration at glimpsing my father's former self was tempered with sadness when I understood how the war had sealed off his emotions.''
But some emotions remain sealed off even from his letters, which do not dwell on the gruesome combat visions he cannot have helped witnessing. Nor does he detail how, exactly, he came to possess the Japanese flag, the souvenir of the title. What is clear is his lingering remorse, even shame, for claiming it and, with a soldier's swagger, sending it home. Unwilling to display it, even less willing to profit from selling it, he had stored it, to be forgotten -- until its belated discovery presented his daughter with the very same moral issues, almost 50 years later.
Steinman both benefits and suffers from her lack of firsthand knowledge of the war. Her father's generation of soldiers had been taught to dehumanize the enemy; Steinman's generation of antiwar protesters had learned the dangers of disregarding our common humanity. Her idealism is admirable, but it is naïve. Even members of her own family find puzzling, if not downright misguided, her decision to trace the family of the Japanese soldier to whom the flag originally belonged and then, in a gesture of reconciliation, to return it to them. ''Would you be returning this flag if it were a German flag with a swastika on it?'' her astounded brother asked.
The question reverberates more deeply when, upon her arrival in Japan, Steinman encounters war shrines that fail to acknowledge Japan's culpability in starting the war and barely hint at its defeat, much less admit its participation in outrages like the Nanking Massacre of 1937 or the Bataan Death March. Whom, or what, Steinman begins to wonder, is she really honoring in returning the flag?
She meets the extended family of the fallen Japanese soldier whose flag her father claimed, listens to the stories of both Japanese and American war veterans, retraces the treacherous battle path her father's regiment followed in the Philippines, and probes, with as much objectivity as she can muster, the twin concepts of guilt and forgiveness. By the end, Steinman recognizes that the lives of her father and his contemporaries had been branded too deeply by the war to allow more than the thinnest veneer of reconciliation. But along with the necessity to remember, the greatest gift one generation can bequeath to future ones is the capacity to tolerate the knowledge of mutual suffering, both given and received. Only when we begin to share our stories, she discovers, can we also begin to approach the humanity we aspire to, and at the same time feel shame at the brutal bestiality of which we are all too capable.
Throughout ''The Souvenir,'' Steinman deftly interweaves her father's story with her own, and adds depth to both narratives by subtly slipping in insights gleaned from research on the psychological impact of combat. The result is an exceptional book that draws its strength from the complexities it explores.
Diane Cole is the author of a memoir, ''After Great Pain: A New Life Emerges.''
Published: 12 - 02 - 2001 , Late Edition - Final , Section 7 , Column 3 , Page 60
TEACHING "The Souvenir"
In spring 2008, at Lane Community College in Eugene, OR, a community joined together to read and discuss "The Souvenir" as it relates to issues of war reconciliation on many levels. One instructor focused her art classes around "The Souvenir" and Tim O'Brien's "The Things They Carried." Her students designed posters based on these works which were displayed on Eugene city busses. Below, a letter from Kathleen Caprario:
April 19, 2008
Louise Steinman’s book, “The Souvenir: A Daughter Discovers her Father’s War,” is a remarkable effort not only for its notable literary merit but also for its ability to convey a sense of time and history and to connect with the reader’s own experiences. It is that ability, that connection, that makes Steinman’s book a natural choice for an interdisciplinary curricula at the community college or high school level.
This academic year, I am using “The Souvenir…” as part of my Basic Design: Foundations ART 115 and Basic Design: Color ART 116 curricula with much success. Steinman writes visually and expressively in a way that my students have positively responded and related to as they designed their own interpretations of selected passages from “The Souvenir…” Their compositions take the form of text/images interfaces, i.e., posters that are then reproduced and placed throughout our local bus system—an “art on the bus” opportunity—that has gained in popularity as it promotes both the chosen author and the college’s art program.
Placing Steinman’s book in an interdisciplinary, academic setting is perfect; even though the war she describes is from the time of the traditional student’s grandparent’s age, current events make the topic of conflict and resolution salient and very real for those young adults. They are not just interested, but hungry to relate to and read about the past as they struggle to make sense out of the present and the future that will someday be their history. This book is relevant, challenging and very human in its approach and can be integrated easily into a studio arts, language arts, history, philosophy, etc. curricula.