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Phantoms (book)

Creators: Kiefer, Christian

Novel by Christian Kiefer centering on a white Vietnam War veteran who tries to unravel the story of what happened to a Nisei World War II veteran, gaining insight into his own experiences in the process.

Phantoms is told in the first-person voice of John Frazier, writing in 1983 about events taking place in 1969, shortly after he had returned damaged and drug addicted from his tour in Vietnam. In part to escape his parents, he goes north to stay with his grandmother in Newcastle, California, where he had spent the happy early years of his childhood. While working at a local gas station, he encounters a somewhat distant aunt named Evelyn Wilson, who hires him to drive her to San Jose to visit a woman named Kimiko Tahahashi. Formerly neighbors and close family friends in the years before World War II, the families had become estranged after the Takahashis' roundup and incarceration as part of the mass removal of Japanese Americans from the West Coast. The two women need each other now to solve a series of mysteries centering on Ray Takahashi, Kimiko's son and a decorated veteran of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team , whom she believed had died in the war, but has come to find out that he had returned to Newcastle as his family had settled in Oakland after leaving Tule Lake and Jerome . The narrative tells the dual stories of both 1945 and 1969, from the narrator's 1983 perspective, Frazier's experience as a war veteran helping him to understand some of what Ray may have been thinking.

Author Kiefer grew up in nearby Auburn and told Amy Reardon that while he know about the wartime incarceration of Japanese Americans, "but only in the abstract, as a facet of California history. That relative downplaying of what happened and our reticence to discuss it—especially in the white community—was really a mark of cultural shame, and I knew there was a story there that hadn’t been explored on the local scene." He added that he adopted the unusual narrative structure of the novel—influenced by William Faulkner and William Styron's Sophie's Choice —in part "to distance myself just enough, to be able to make mistakes, and to have a narrator who is fallible." The director of the MFA program at Ashland University—which he runs remotely from his home in Placer County—he has a Ph.D. in American literature from University of California, Davis. Phantoms is his third published novel.

Phantoms includes detailed depictions of the forced removal of Japanese Americans in the Newcastle area and of conditions in Newcastle immediately after the war, both of which conform to what is known of those periods. Newcastle is located in Placer County, an area where anti-Japanese sentiment was particularly high in the immediate postwar period as reflected in the book. There is less of a depiction of the Takahashis' incarceration, and there are some minor errors or omissions in those depictions. We are told that the Japanese Americans of Newcastle were moved on buses to Tule Lake in May of 1942. While Japanese Americans from Placer County did mostly go to Tule Lake, they went first to the Marysville Assembly Center for a little over a month before going on to Tule Lake towards the end of June. We are also told that the Takahashis went from Tule Lake to Jerome, presumably as a result of the segregation following the 1943 " loyalty questionnaire ," and then back to California in 1945. However, Jerome closed in June of 1944, at a time when Japanese Americans were still prohibited from returning to the West Coast. Thus, they had to have been transferred to another camp after Jerome before returning to California. The Takahashis' journey was thus somewhat more complicated than depicted here.

Authored by Brian Niiya , Densho
Borrow/Download from Internet Archive

Find in the Digital Library of Japanese American Incarceration


This item has been made freely available in the Digital Library of Japanese American Incarceration , a collaborative project with Internet Archive .

Might also like: Southland by Nina Revoyr; The Climate of the Country by Marnie Mueller; Allegiance by Kermit Roosevelt

Media Details
Author Christian Kiefer
Pages 233
Publication Date 2019
Awards <i>Kirkus Reviews</i>, Best Historical Fiction of 2019, <a class="external free" href="" rel="nofollow"></a>


Donovan Deborah. Booklist , Apr. 1, 2019, 17. ["Kiefer's haunting third novel traces the effect of war on two men decades apart."]

Kirkus Reviews , Feb. 1, 2019. ["It will break your heart, and in the breaking, fill you with bittersweet but luminous joy."]

Publishers Weekly , Feb. 25, 2019, 52–53. ["Kiefer's story sheds light on the prejudice violence ignites and on the Japanese-American experience during a fraught period of American history, and makes for engaging and memorable novel."]