When Kristina McMorris asked if I’d like to receive an advanced review copy of her new novel Bridge of Scarlet Leaves last fall, I jumped at the chance. You may remember Kim’s interview with her here at What Women Write last year shortly after the release of her debut novel, Letters from Home.
I had the pleasure of meeting Kristina in person last year, and you couldn’t find a more dynamic, generous person. She is a former wedding and event planner, and our conversation about all the creative ways she has marketed her books blew me away. If I managed to use only a fraction of her ideas, I think I’d fall over in exhaustion, but I’m pretty sure Kristina’s middle name is “Dynamo.”
So, yes, she is a friend, and I thought I should be up front about that here as I step into this review.
In a landscape where World War II stories are currently very trendy, Bridge of Scarlet Leaves stands out as one that mostly takes place on home soil in the United States. Like Jamie Ford’s bestselling novel Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, McMorris’s story deals with the subject of Japanese internment camps, but it is a complementary companion to Ford’s, different in that it follows the experiences of a young white woman who chooses to marry and then follow her Japanese American husband into an internment camp, much to the displeasure of both of their families.
From the publisher (Kensington/February 2012):
Los Angeles, 1941. Violinist Maddie Kern's life seemed destined to unfold with the predictable elegance of a Bach concerto. Then she fell in love with Lane Moritomo. Her brother's best friend, Lane is the handsome, ambitious son of Japanese immigrants. Maddie was prepared for disapproval from their families, but when Pearl Harbor is bombed the day after she and Lane elope, the full force of their decision becomes apparent. In the eyes of a fearful nation, Lane is no longer just an outsider, but an enemy.
When her husband is interned at a war relocation camp, Maddie follows, sacrificing her Juilliard ambitions. Behind barbed wire, tension simmers and the line between patriot and traitor blurs. As Maddie strives for the hard-won acceptance of her new family, Lane risks everything to prove his allegiance to America, at tremendous cost.
The Kensington teaser doesn’t mention the rich subplots in Bridge of Scarlet Leaves. One of my favorites was the developing relationship between TJ, Maddie’s brother, and Jo, her best friend. Another was the emotional visits Maddie pays to her father, who resides in a nursing home due to a tragic accident that changed the landscape of her nuclear family years earlier. And I found myself glued to sections where Maddie desperately searches for the right ways to connect with her disapproving mother-in-law, often making cultural faux pas in her clumsy attempts to make peace.
Additionally, McMorris does a fabulous job of going beyond Maddie and Lane’s forbidden love, marriage, and consequences to explore the horrific experiences of American POWs trapped in secluded Pacific island camps and the fine balance between the POWs and their captors, often shown through the eyes of Lane as he attempts to make use of his Japanese heritage to negotiate peaceful resolutions. The level of detail in these sections makes the care and time McMorris put into her research obvious. In fact, given the delicate blossoms on the cover and the focus on the love story in the synopsis, I expected this book to be more strictly weighted toward Women’s fiction, but I would venture to say men would enjoy Bridge of Scarlet Leaves, too, with many chapters told through both Lane’s and TJ’s eyes.
Ultimately, Bridge of Scarlet Leaves is a rich, multifaceted novel that immerses the reader in an American world both comfortably familiar and horrifically foreign at once, in tense overseas battles both psychological and physical, and in romantic histories that convey both heartbreak and hope.