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The Souvenir

Louise Steinman



When Louise Steinman was growing up in 1950s there were three rules: 1. Never cry in front of father 2. Never wear black in his presence and 3. Never ask questions about these rules. It was only after her parents' death, when she made a chance discovery that Louise Steinman began to understand why. Hidden among her parents' belongings was an old metal ammunition box. Inside were hundreds of letters her father wrote home during the Pacific War. "Dearest," he writes in one, "After months of dreading nighttime, it is so hard to change. You see I need you to help me get over that type of fear and use the nights for what they were meant for." He wrote this letter after 167 days of straight combat. Louise Steinman was astonished--here was a side of her father she never knew. To her, he was a gruff, practical man--a pharmacist, actually, who worked 13-hour days, and kept mostly to himself. She never knew that he fought in a campaign that set the record for consecutive days of combat in the war. He had never talked about it. He had never told her how, at 24, he was yanked from his young wife who was pregnant with their first child, to fight in a place that was completely foreign to him. His letters home were his only connection to all that he knew and loved--they were his lifeline. As Louise poured through them, she found a Japanese soldier's flag-a souvenir he later regretted sending home. Japanese soldiers carried these flags for good luck.

THE SOUVENIR is the heartbreaking and heartwarming story of a woman discovering her father, the men he fought with, and the men he fought against. Because of these letters and this flag Louise Steinman sets upon on a journey that takes her across the world, to the snow country of Japan, to a mountain top in the Philippines, and back home again forever changed. Over the course of that journey, she finds the family of the Japanese solider, Yoshio Shimizu, whose flag this once was, and returns it to his surviving family.

Finding her father's ammunition box was a gift--one that unlocked a part of him that was sealed by the trauma of war. And through the act of returning the flag she is able to bring about a kind of catharsis--for her father, herself, and the family of his enemy.

About the Author

Louise Steinman is a writer, artist and literary curator. Her work often deals with memory, history and reconciliation. Her book, The Souvenir: A Daughter Discovers Her Father's War was cited as “A graceful, understated memoir… that draws its strength from the complexities it explores.” (New York Times Book Review) and “…an intimate and powerful story of the effects of war.” (James Bradley, author, Flags of Our Fathers). The book won the 2002 Gold Medal in Memoir from ForeWord Magazine and has been the selection of several All-City and All-Freshman Reads programs. The book chronicles her quest to return a war “souvenir” to its owner and—in the process—illuminates how war changed one generation and shaped another.

Louise Steinman


From Publishers Weekly

When Norman Steinman a member of the 25th Infantry Division, which fought in the Philippines in 1945 died in 1990, he left behind a box full of WWII letters (more than 400), later discovered by his daughter. Among the souvenirs was a small Japanese flag, inscribed with words Louise could not read. She had them translated and found that the flag had belonged to a Japanese soldier. Obsessed, Steinman began her search for him or his family. This small book, a moving memoir about reconciliation and honor, is her tale of her successful quest, her trip to Japan to return the flag and the friendships she forged along the way. Steinman visited the battlefields on Luzon in which her father battled the weather, jungle and Japanese. This volume contains many of his letters, published here for the first time, that show typical G.I. behavior, attitudes toward the enemy and longing for good food and friends back home. Steinman's visit to Hiroshima helped her to understand the war from the Japanese point of view. In coming to understand her father and his postwar behavior, Steinman discovers how real WWII can become to a survivor's family.

From Library Journal

Clearing out the family's storage locker after her father's death, Steinman discovered a rusted metal ammo box with hundreds of letters spanning the years 1941-45 that he had written to her mother and a manila envelope with a Japanese soldier's flag. Intrigued by these "souvenirs" of a time and an experience in her father's life that she had never really understood, Steinman, cultural programs director of the Los Angeles Public Library, set out on a quest to return the flag to the family of Yoshio Shimizu, the Japanese soldier. This book is the story of the entwined "gifts" resulting from that personal journey Steinman's discovery of a side of her father that she had never expected to share ("I never knew my father to cry") and the "softly uttered" words of the fallen soldier's mother: "You have given us back Yoshio. The government only sent sand in a box." Steinman comments that from the letters she wanted to "unravel the connection between my father's silence about the war and our family's home life." For many, her account could provide an understanding of how that war changed one generation and shaped the next.


"An affecting memoir and a convincing plea for pacifism: Steinman's hypnotizing prose exposes the senselessness of war..."

The New York Time Book Review

" exceptional book that draws its strength from the complexities it explores." --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.


What most surprised you in your research for this book?Several things. I had no idea of the extent of racism that existed on BOTH sides of the Pacific War. The U.S. propaganda against the Japanese was horrendous-labeling them subhuman vermin-and on the other side, the Japanese people were told the Americans would practically eat them alive. The fighting in the Pacific was particularly brutal because the Japanese had been so thoroughly dehumanized to the Americans. (And also because the Japanese were not allowed by their commanders to surrender.)I was also amazed to hear some Japanese people say that they believed, sadly, that the only way to stop the Japanese military was for the U.S. to have dropped the bomb. I never thought I'd hear that from someone Japanese. But I did. They really thought that if there had been an invasion of the mainland, the country would have been led to a mass suicide. They were making plans for it.After making this long journey to find the Shimizu family and return the flag, what do you think is the most important thing to bear in mind about reconciliation between former enemies?I think you have to look at shared history together. It's not an easy thing to do, but it's absolutely necessary. It was such a missed opportunity when the 50th Anniversary of Hiroshima came along, for the Smithsonian not to have exhibited material about the effects ofa the atom bomb. And it's quite a problem that the Japanese don't teach the whole truth in their schools about Japanese militarism and Japanese aggression and brutality in Asia. The subject of the war is still very touchy in Japan. By letting the Emperor off the hook, MacArthur also made it more difficult for the Japanese to look at their own culpability. To look at history together can be very disturbing, but I think it offers an enormous opportunity to paint a more complex picture and to understand the other.I've also come to have a much deeper understanding of the complexity of apology and forgiveness. I was not apologizing to the Shimizu family, I couldn't even tell them for sure whether or not my father might have contributed to the death of their son/brother/uncle. And they did not apologize to me. But together, we acknowledged our bond and the gravity of what binds us together as human beings. Reconciliation often falls to the next generation. It may be beyond the power of the combatants themselves to forgive. But sometimes that moment of grace can also happen.How does your book relate to your past work in performance and theater?In a way, I see the process of trying to find the Shimizu family and returning the flag to be a long extended performance, intended for as wide an audience as possible. It's "life art" in that sense. The gesture is not created for a proscenium stage, but a world stage, so to speak. What binds the two together is the idea of a ritual gesture. Remember that all kinds of spectacles are "performance"-weddings, funerals, birth ceremonies. Witnessing is a powerful part of the theatrical process. The act of returning the flag, the ceremony if you will, was the most powerful performance I've ever attended. I was both actor and participant.How have American veterans responded to your book?That's been the most gratifying aspect of the book's publication. Numerous veterans have written to me. They express thanks but they also want to tell their own stories. Some of them have sent me stories and all of them have been eye-openers. What these men endured and suffered and in so many cases, never shared with anyone. If anyone thinks that the effect of war ends when the battle ends, they're quite mistaken.

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