— The Fervor, by Alma Katsu, Putnam (2022)
Alma Katsu’s newest historical horror novel, The Fervor, feels unsettlingly familiar despite its World War II setting. Although the story begins with the outbreak of a mysterious illness in a Japanese-American internment camp, it eventually merges in surprising and satisfying ways with two parallel story lines: one about a female reporter trying to uncover a government conspiracy, and the other focused on a grieving widow who gets sucked into a homegrown white nationalist movement. A touch of magical realism, mostly based on Japanese folklore and fairy tales, ties the book together.
In her author’s note at the end of the book, Katsu writes that the long history of violence against Asian Americans is barely taught in American classrooms. As these attacks surge once again, and white nationalism becomes an increasing threat, Katsu’s novel — a departure from her usual writing, and rooted in her own personal history — is both timeless and timely.
The story is peppered with the increasingly belligerent voices of the Loyal Sons, a fictional white nationalist group. In trying to explain their views, one member says that “those Japs – they’re in the camps because they sold us out to the enemy. But you city folk don’t want to believe it. I seen it in the papers…. You believe their lies and nonsense, and you want us poor, ignorant dirt farmers to believe it, too. You think you know better than us. You think we don’t know anything, but we know what’s really going on in this country. There’s stuff going on right under your nose you know nothing about.” The wild claims based on little evidence, the whiff of paranoia, and the us vs. them mentality in speeches like this would not sound out of place in today’s national political discourse.
These scenes remind us that the things we say to each other now are not fundamentally new, and that history keeps repeating itself because we seem to refuse to learn from it — none of us are immune. Archie Mitchell, one of the book’s only characters based on a real person, is a prime example. In 1944 in Bly, Oregon, Archie’s pregnant wife Elsie and several children were killed by a Japanese “fire balloon” while out picnicking. It was the only instance of American deaths as the result of enemy action during World War II in the continental United States. In the novel, Archie is wracked with guilt and grief and unwittingly finds himself recruited into the Loyal Sons. Although he sees himself as a peaceful person, still he gets caught up in the fervor of the movement: “It felt good to do something to defend Elsie. To strike back. He’d been taught that violence was never the answer, but now he was seeing that sometimes it might be. There was something else, too. An unexpected feeling of belonging. In that moment, he felt more a part of the community than he ever had as their minister. Hatred was a powerful common interest.”
Meiko, the Japanese American woman at the center of the story, is a poignant reminder that we all have within us the capacity for self-transformation. And within this capacity lies a greater potential for social harmony. When she learns that her own father was responsible for the outbreak that drives so much racism and government overreach in the book, she is sick with guilt because it means “in the Japanese tradition, that his family was responsible. She was responsible.” When she is asked to go to Washington, DC to speak with government officials about finding a cure for the outbreak, she agrees because “It is my familial obligation. I will do this because my father did not. And in doing so, I will prove our critics wrong: Japanese do not choose their country over obligation to all people. That may have been who we were, but we can change. And because Aiko and I are loyal citizens who want what’s best for all Americans. There is no greater example I could set than that.”
Originally from New York, Danielle Johnson is a writer and political scientist who has lived all over the world. She has a PhD in Politics from Oxford University and is writing her first novel. She lives in Shepherdstown with her husband, kids, and dog.By Danielle Johnson