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Book Review: Swann's War

Dorothy Carico Smith

How or why Michael Oren who once taught at Yale and became the Israeli ambassador to the US wound up writing Swann’s War a novel about a policewoman in the 1940s on a made-up maritime island off Massachusetts is anyone's guess. But it will likely be every reader's conclusion that he's done an instructive and moving job revealing a little-known fact about World War II in America that resonates today.

The island is imaginary, but not the name, Fourth Cliff, or its purpose during the war. It housed approximately 51,000 Italian prisoners of war. Considered less dangerous than Germans, the POWs were largely unsupervised and set to digging ditches working on the docks, handling freight tending to local farms and bakeries. Who knew! As Oren writes in an acknowledgments section, it took a while for Americans to learn about President Roosevelt's executive order 9066 to imprison Japanese Americans. Under that same order about 600,000 Italian Americans were similarly pinned up as enemy aliens, including Joe DiMaggio’s parents. Thousands more were hounded by J. Edgar Hoover, and yet as many as 1.5 million Americans of Italian descent were overseas fighting Axis nations. Include among the dubious patriots, the relatively unknown fact that mafia bigwigs like Lucky Luciano were also active against Hitler, including protecting New England ports, prime targets for German U-boats.

As if all this historical disclosure were not enough to base a murder mystery on Oran taps into another subject – significant of that time and ours: women in positions of authority in the 40s. The men were at war. And so it is that young Mary Beth Swann, the recently married wife of police chief Archie Swann, fighting somewhere in the South Pacific and soon to be declared MIA hesitantly takes over his job as captain on Fourth Cliff. From Boston, young, female, totally inexperienced, she's a joke to the regulars on the island, an outsider who is ridiculed as “Black Bass” and disrespected whatever she tries to do. Her own widowed father, bitter and unsympathetic, makes fun of her as incompetent and overreaching.

But she hangs in there thinking that this is the way to honor Archie though she does grow increasingly despondent. She misses her beloved husband who's been gone now two years and is totally unprepared for what happens one day when body parts wash up on the beach. It will be the first of four killings of Italians interned on Fourth Cliff.

“What would Archie do,” is the constant refrain in her head. She still gets an occasional letter from him, telling her how much he loves her and asking her to take care of his beloved Harley motorcycle. Then the letters stop.

She tools around it or coupe patrol car but interviews with the island's natives lead nowhere. This wider scope allows Oren to describe the scenery, beautifully done, and to introduce secondary characters, all of whom are distinctive of place and class. Including the Mafiosi. These portraits are among the most resonant in the book islanders full of backbiting, pious yet cynical, hardworking, though rarely ambitious…Puritan stock salted by generations of suffering by inbreeding and brine and clinging barnacle-like to their ways.

Mary Beth perseveres even making friends with some of the prisoners and comes to see that in the camp, some of the Italians or fascist sympathizers, supportive of Il Duce, Mussolini to the disgust of other prisoners. Could the killer be a partisan? An anti-partisan?

Oren manages to sustain suspense until the end, and even if the denouement is less than satisfying as a murder mystery, the emotional conclusion, which occurs in the very last line of the book, is a knockout.

Joan Baum is a recovering academic from the City University of New York, who spent 25 years teaching literature and writing. She covers all areas of cultural history but particularly enjoys books at the nexus of the humanities and the sciences.