Reviews and News
A Note from Lulu
I have just finished reading Leonore's Suite, and it's a page-turner. I am "Lulu," Lee's best friend in the book and in camp. So many of the adventures Mary Beth recounts here are true, and based on our daily life in camp. Lee and I were the same age when we were interned (14), had both lost our fathers, and we were together almost every hour of every day. The novel brings to life our relations with Japanese guards, our adventures in school, our camp jobs, our constant starvation and recipe collecting, our rescue by the American infantry, the horrific shelling by the Japanese that killed friends, our teen romances with the GIs, and how we put the horror of war behind us on our trip home on the U.S.S. Admiral Capps. For me, these were memories, but here they are woven together as an engrossing story that made me laugh and cry (all over again). I loved the Chapter Notes at the end of the book, explaining which parts were true and which were fiction. The fictional parts feel like they could have been true to me because they embody a lot of what we took from our camp experience. Today, I am 91 and live in Calabasas, California. I'd be glad to answer any of your questions about the camp or my dear friend, Lee, or just to hear about your reaction to the book.
Marylou Cleland Hedrick (aka "Lulu")
As a former Santo Tomas internee, I find it extremely difficult (to put it mildly) to comprehend how anyone who did not personally experience internment camp life could possibly have written a work that so amazingly, beautifully and convincingly captures the nature and flavor of that life. No matter how much material, written and oral, may have been accessible to the author, I never would have believed it possible to produce such an absolutely outstanding work — and, moreover, to sustain its excellence over the course of such a lengthy account. I am ready to seriously contemplate the argument that Lee Iserson somehow must have been reincarnated in - or at least transplanted into — the person of her daughter Mary Beth Klee. If that is not the case, then all I can say is that mother has to be incomparably and immeasurably proud of daughter. Martin Meadows, Florida
Once I received my copy of the book, I could not put it down...read it in two days straight. The stories still linger ~ not just the horrors of camp; the vermin (I shudder simply typing that word), starvation, and the beastly treatment by the Japanese soldiers. Yet, what inspires me, wows me, is the resilience, inventiveness, kindness and the monumental survival instinct that seemingly kept them all mostly intact. Cindie Roeder Leonard, Idaho
I just placed an order for 4 additional copies of this excellent book. (I was interned in Santo Tomas and Los Banos.) Congratulations to Mary Beth Klee on capturing the essence of what it was like to be a teenager in Santo Tomas. Her book brought back many memories and confirmed stories I've told my children and grandchildren.
David Blackledge, Pennsylvania
As a former prisoner in the same Japanese internment camp about which the author writes, I approached her book with trepidation because she describes it as historical fiction inspired, but not constrained, by true events. But I was quickly drawn into the book and was delighted that her chapter notes describe when she deviates from actual circumstances and why she did so. Once I started reading, I recognized so many of the dire events that we faced and was fascinated by her description of how others reacted to them.
It is a coming-of-age story for Lee Iserson and a cohort of girls between the ages of 13 and
17, all real people in the Santo Tomas Internment Camp in Manila. And unless you were in this
cohort, it is an amazing and bewildering tale that takes you into the thoughts and behavior of
teenage girls subjected to the rigors of being prisoners of the Japanese during World War II.
The story is a comprehensive telling of how these young women, and particularly Lee, fared as prisoners and grew as people: from the time they were brought into the internment camp and had to find a small space in the crowded uncomfortable dormitories of the Main Building, to their daily life for more than 3 years under increasingly difficult conditions. The girls worried about starvation and survival. They also worried about boys and dances. Music suffuses the book: not just “Leonore’s Suite,” but the nightly PA system selections, which reflect their moods and actual events -- from "Someone to Watch Over Me," when Lee’s father dies to
"Pennies from Heaven," as the American planes arrive and bombs begin to fall. The book takes you on a rollercoaster ride, from the depths of despair as the Japanese eliminate any sense of humanity to the ecstatic moments when American bombers appear, then when word reaches them of the invasion of Leyte, and finally when the American tanks roll into the camp to free them.
Embracing freedom with its joys and sorrows (the shelling, deaths of friends, haunting
memories) is the theme of the final part of the book. I will not be a spoiler, but the sight seen as
the girls sail under the Golden Gate Bridge foretells a brighter future. Lee and her friends have
experienced harrowing events that friendship, family, faith, and the indomitable human spirit
allow them to surmount. This is a big book, and a worthy read.
Angus Lorenzen, California
Leonore's Suite is a remarkable book, beautifully told and haunting. Based on her mother's experience, Mary Beth Klee gives us a true account of teenager Lee who spent the duration of World War II in a Japanese Prisoner of War camp in the Philippines. The horror and deprivation that the internees endured with courage and tenacity makes for grim reading, but this book is as much about the coming of age of Lee as it is about the camp life. Lee's pivotal experience, so very different from ordinary teenagers, made her the strong adult she was going to become, and made fascinating reading.
Leonore's Suite is an important education conveying the years of hardship in the Santo Tomas Internment camp, but it is also a tribute to the humour, the creativeness and the lasting friendships of internees awaiting the hoped for liberation. The author, with great skill and charm, blended the savage images, with images of unexpected beauty to leave a lasting impression. I am the richer for reading Leonore's Suite and will be reading it again.
Merilyn Brason, England
*Note from Mary Beth Klee: Merilyn Brason is the author of The Bamboo Bracelet, a compelling account of her mother's experience as a pregnant, newly interned prisoner of the Japanese and as a young mother there. It is a riveting true story, providing insight into Japanese camps at Baguio, Camp Holmes,and Santo Tomas.
Leonore's Suite is a story to lose yourself in during these difficult times. It is the mostly
unknown story of almost 4000 Americans interned in a Japanese concentration camp from January 1942 to April 1945. This historical fiction is inspired by true events in the life of the author's mother, who was 13 at the time. It is a story of great hope, creativity and "American ingenuity," as camp members create schools, sports teams, bridge tournaments, and various entertainments, using the talents of the internees. This story is told from the perspective of a bright and resourceful teenager. I loved this book from start to finish, and was sad when I reached the last page. It is a story that needed to be told, and Ms. Klee tells it so well.
Kathy Collins, Washington
I didn’t want this book to end... The writing style was so fluid, moving from laughter to sadness. Each character had a unique personality. I could understand why the bonds were formed. Each character filled a need of emotional support and personal purpose for connection. STIC was a microcosm of our world’s social structure. The human connection is the heartbeat of life. As we struggle today with Covid-19 and stay at home guidelines, reading this book put the pandemic in perspective. I am counting my blessings each day no matter how small they are. For me, the timing of the book was perfect.
Sharon Davis, California
Do we need another war story? Leonore’s Suite is a story of war not yet told: of a teenaged girl’s internment by the Japanese in Manila during World War II. The year 2020 marks the 75th Anniversary of war’s end. Many new readers will seek out such stories to understand the era’s history and its people.
Sometimes one person’s tale can illustrate larger themes. Leonore's Suite is a coming of age story, set in Santo Tomas University where nearly 4000 American civilians were interned by the Japanese for three years. Closely based upon real people and actual events, the fictional Leonore is an ordinary girl confronted with extraordinary times, a girl who grows to meet many challenges.
While experiencing fear, captivity, overcrowding, sickness, ugliness, cowardice, starvation, and brutality, she manages to find strength, beauty, growth, heroism, endurance, liberation, family and friendship. Lee comes to understand the depths and heights of the human spirit, traits present in people on both sides of the conflict.
Her trials are shared with her mother and younger sister. Her father is a civilian with the American army; fate and whereabouts unknown. While absent in body, he is present in spirit. “Leonore’s Suite” is Father’s musical gift to her. It becomes a symbol of all that is bright and hopeful during this dark time.
Teenaged girls will find Leonore’s Suite accessible and inspiring. They will meet a girl much like themselves, on the cusp of womanhood, trying to make sense of a chaotic world. They will come to understand how war affects the lives of all, not just the combatants.
Ms. Klee’s prose challenges young readers without demeaning. From the book’s opening words, “I went off to prison in a Cadillac,” to its closing, “We were born to unite with our fellow girls and dramatically improve the human race,” we are drawn into the story: invited to witness, then participate, and finally to join the story as it becomes a part of the reader’s life.
Do we need another war story? Yes, we do: Leonore’s Suite.
Morgan J. Sweeney, Michigan
Many pages have been written about the American military men who went off to war in Europe and the Pacific in World War II. Did you know that thousands of American civilians -women, men, and children - were prisoners of the Japanese Army? That they built a mini-city in Manila, with schools, utilities, and self-performed entertainment? That some American girls and boys came of age as internees under the flag of the Rising Sun? That nearly all were close to starvation after years of captivity?
This is a definitive account of this hidden history, told in the distinctive voice of a young girl named Leonore, who spent her teenage years pursuing friendship, education, and even love behind bars, wondering if she and her family would ever again be free.
Mary Beth Klee, the daughter of Leonore, and a Ph.D. in American history, offers here the fruits of a decade of careful research, meticulous interviewing, and on the ground investigation, all delivered in memorable storytelling. A chapter Americans should know about our history has finally received its due.
R. K., Indiana
This book was such a gift. It was amazing to be brought into the world that Lee lived for three long years – written with such compassion, clarity and heart.
The writing here is truly a beautiful art. As I was reading it I could picture the events
happening. I fell love with the characters, and worried about them when I closed the book, and had to hurry to open it again to see what happened to them next. I laughed, I cried. It is a story of incredible strength and courage. In many ways this book has changed my life.
When my children were growing up, a favorite movie in our video collection was "Empire under the Sun." A young Christian Bale plays a prisoner in a Japanese Internment camp in Singapore. If you haven't seen it, I highly recommend it. Now I want my grown children to read "Leonore's Suite" a novel based on Klee's grandmother, aunt and mother's 37 month imprisonment in a Japanese Internment camp for American and British civilians in Manila, Philippines and yes, I highly recommend it.
Klee writes in the voice of her 13 - 17 year old mother. She delivers pre-WWII colonial Manila, Japanese conquered Manila, this internment experience and the zeitgeist of the early 1940s in a wonderfully written novel. This fact-based story proves truth can and is here more engaging then fiction.
I finished this tale knowing more about the Asian arena of WWII then before I started it. The intelligence and ingenuity of these prisoners left me with the haunting question "How much courage, integrity and resourcefulness would I have if I was placed in a similar situation?"
Geri Aponowich, Newport, RI
This is an amazing read that I didn't want to end. You get so close to the main characters - Lee (Leonore), her best friend Lulu, their families and teen friends. "Leonore's Suite" is both the music of Lee's young life - her coming of age story as a prisoner of war -- and an actual piece of music that Lee's father wrote for her thirteenth birthday. The sheet music (smuggled into camp) connects Lee to the love of her father (who died in the war) and challenges her to see the enemy in a new light.
In an era when we are complaining about 'social distancing' for a few months, here is the story of Lee's three long years of imprisonment. The twists and turns are, on the one hand, the challenges of any teen girl (school, friends, boys, dances) and yet completely unique to her as a prisoner of war (confinement, squalor, cruelty, disease, witnessing torture, overcoming starvation and hatred, finding meaning in the horror).
Despite the negatives of captivity, the story retains a sense of hope and optimism throughout, as the families and friends find creative ways to overcome even their biggest challenges. Lee (and her family) are immensely resourceful in tackling these challenges; her grit, spunk, and faith seldom waver. The story made me proud to be an American. You learn how the internee community bands together to create a school (in the age prior to e-learning) with high enough standards of learning that our heroine (spoiler alert) comes home for her senior year of high school in the US and ends up as valedictorian of her class.
I read all the Chapter Notes because, even though it is a novel, it is largely grounded in fact. Couldn't get enough of the story. If you're looking for a book that'll make you feel better about being confined to your home and short of toilet paper, read this! (There's a memorable scene in which toilet paper is being rationed at just two squares per customer, and Lee, on duty as "Miss Issue Tissue" in the ladies room, perseveres.)
This novel allows the professional historian author the license to tell her own mother’s riveting story of internment in Manila during the Second World War. Each of the 49 chapters (!) is framed with the historical references and local color endemic to a trained historian’s eye. Yet what captures the reader is the painstaking attention Mary Beth gives to the shape of her mother Lee’s life and friendships in Santo Tomas Internment Camp. Imaginative presence is what makes this labor of ancestral love a novel.
Like any generational narrative, readers can easily be caught in a time-warp, wondering where we are now. Yet the actuality of it all: the resourceful response of this majority American cohort to imprisonment (schooling for children, religious services, a newspaper, shows, clinic and hospital) occurs in the midst of overcrowding, disease, starvation, and the ever-present threat of violence.
To experience the growing friendship and personal growth of mid-teens Leonore [Lee] and Mary Louella [Lulu] is to gain heart oneself, and to watch their two-sided debate on the pluses and minuses of being in prison—a fitting final class task—is to share in their personal growing pains and vicissitudes. All-in-all, the novel is an unmitigated joy, a heartfelt exercise in recovering a mother’s life in the midst of a world’s travail.
Rev. David Burrell C.S.C., Hesburgh Professor emeritus, University of Notre Dame