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Louise Steinman’s American childhood in the fifties was bound by one unequivocal condition: “Never mention the war to your father.” That silence sustained itself until the fateful day Steinman opened an old ammunition box left behind after her parents’ death. In it she discovered nearly 500 letters her father had written to her mother during his service in the Pacific War and a Japanese flag mysteriously inscribed to Yoshio Shimizu. Setting out to determine the identity of Yoshio Shimizu and the origins of the silken flag, Steinman discovered the unexpected: a hidden side of her father, the green soldier who achingly left his pregnant wife to fight for his life in a brutal 165-day campaign that changed him forever. Her journey to return the “souvenir” to its owner not only takes Steinman on a passage to Japan and the Philippines, but also returns her to the age of her father’s innocence, where she learned of the tender and expressive man she’d never known. Steinman writes with the same poignant immediacy her father did in his letters. Together their stories in The Souvenir create an evocative testament to the ways in which war changes one generation and shapes another.
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Louise Steinman is curator of the award-winning ALOUD at Central Library literary series at the Los Angeles Public Library. Her work appears frequently in The Los Angeles Times and L.A. Weekly, and has appeared in syndication in The New York Times and other publications.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
From the Prologue: Somewhere at SeaIn January 1944 when my father crossed the Pacific for the first time, he did not know where he was going. He did not know he was headed for New Zealand. He did not know that after a year of training and waiting, first in New Zealand then in New Caledonia, he and his army buddies in the Twenty-fifth Infantry Division would be transported to northern Luzon, the Philippines, where they would sweat out five and a half months of combat.The monotony, the uncertainty of the destination, the hot sun, the loneliness, the roiling sea all took their toll on him. “I’ve never felt so blue. It’s the thought of leaving you. I hope I can get over it soon, because it’s a terrible state of affairs,” he wrote to his wife—my mother—from the confines of a transport ship.As the realization of a long separation sank in—months, possibly years—his mood veered toward panic then settled into depression. Writing letters was his only relief. “Dear Anne,” he wrote home, “I’m sorry that you won’t hear from me for such a long time until you get this letter, but because of the safety precautions and secrecy involved (for our own good), I wasn’t allowed to tell you when I left the States.” To describe his location, he wrote simply “Somewhere at Sea” in the upper right-hand corner of each letter.My father—a graduate of De Witt Clinton High School in the Bronx, with a math degree from New York University—was lacking his usual reference points. No Sunday New York Times, no conversations with his parents, no weekly lectures at the 42nd Street branch of the New York Public Library. And the most grievous lack of all—his wife.It was not like the pragmatic father I knew to daydream, sitting motionless, spinning in his imagination every inch of his wife’s body. Her hair. Her smile. The way she wore hats. He composed letters in his mind, wrote them down when the seasickness abated...
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