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Lone Star Book Reviews
By Michelle Newby, NBCC
Contributing Editor

Michelle Newby is contributing editor at Lone Star Literary Life, reviewer for Foreword Reviews, freelance writer, member of the National Book Critics Circle, and blogger at Her reviews appear or are forthcoming in Pleiades Magazine, Rain Taxi, World Literature Today, South85 Journal, The Review Review, Concho River Review, Monkeybicycle, Mosaic Literary Magazine, Atticus Review, and The Collagist.

Lone Star Book Reviews
of Texas books appear weekly at

JAN JARBOE RUSSELL   The Train to Crystal City: FDR’s Secret Prisoner Exchange Program and America’s Only Family Internment Camp During World War II

NONFICTION   Scribner, 2015, 978-1-4516-9366-9, 400 pp., $30.00

reviewed 2.2.2015 by Michelle Newby, Contributing Editor

﷯“Enemies are people whose stories you haven’t yet heard and whose faces you haven’t yet seen.” 
–Irene Hasenberg Butter
 Well. They don’t teach you this stuff in school. From 1942 until 1948 at Crystal City, in the south Texas desert thirty miles from the Mexican border, the federal government operated the only family internment camp in the world during World War II. Approximately 6,000 German, Italian and Japanese civilians—termed “dangerous enemy aliens” and their American-born children—were held indefinitely, without charge or trial. Crystal City also held detainees whom FDR used as leverage in prisoner exchanges with the Axis powers. For the detainees, Crystal City represented reunion with their families, the carrot preceding the stick of repatriation. Jan Jarboe Russell tells the larger tale of Crystal City by focusing on two teenage girls who lived in the camp behind barbed-wire fences patrolled on horseback, watched by armed guards in towers. Ingrid Eiserloh from Ohio spent eighteen months in Crystal City with her mother and siblings when her father, a German legal resident of the United States, was arrested by the FBI and placed in “custodial detention.” Sumi Utsushigawa from Los Angeles spent more than two years in Crystal City with her parents, both legal Japanese immigrants. In perhaps the most moving passages, Russell weaves in the story of the prisoner Ingrid was eventually exchanged for: Irene Hasenberg, a German Jew and survivor of Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. This episode conveys one of the abundant brain-boggling ironies in Crystal City: exchanging an American citizen for a German citizen. Paradoxes abound. Ingrid’s father, deported as an enemy of the state, was hired by the U.S. Army in Germany as a translator. Sumi, an American citizen, was deported to Japan with her parents where she, too, found work as a translator with the occupying US Army. Crystal City is thoroughly researched narrative nonfiction written in a colloquial style that makes history engaging and accessible for all. It is rich in the seemingly small details that evoke an era, place, and experience. For example, the Japanese detainees complained they had nothing with which to grind tofu. This problem was resolved with pestles and molinos from a local Mexican restaurant. One of my favorite anecdotes involves a group of Japanese boys who repeatedly serenaded the guards in the towers with “…many choruses of one of the top tunes of the hit parade, 'Don’t Fence Me In.'” Jarboe Russell doesn’t preach at us; she presents the facts, leavened by the personalities of the individuals involved, and lets the work speak for itself. This is an important addition to not only Texas history, but world history. I’ll end this review with a quote from a letter written by a Crystal City detainee to the INS. “No living thing should be locked up…When I am free, I want to live in a house without locks, even without doors. It will be a house made up of windows and the view must not be obstructed by anything, not even mountains.” 


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