Book Review: An Enemy Like Me
Reviewed by Madeline Barbush
A powerful novel of love, war, and the complexities of family and identity
In An Enemy Like Me, the harrowing historical novel by Teri M. Brown, the author beautifully explores family dynamics and patriotism at its core. She places us in the hearts of everyone involved and creates a tale of love above all else.
Set during WWII, the main character, Jacob Wendel Miller, is a German American sent off to fight the Japanese. He leaves behind Bonnie, his wife, and William, his son, who have their fair share of battles to fight without him home.
The power of Brown’s writing is such that she makes us all feel how we did when we were left all alone to figure out life and its hardships, whether in a foreign place or in a place that once felt like home but now feels like anything but.
Jacob is a German American living in the USA during the 1940s. Unlike his father and mother before him, he has a political awareness which is crucial for someone of their background. From the onset of the novel Bonnie and William have to say goodbye to Jacob and find what life is like without him.
Brown gives each of the characters their own journey. Jacob must deal with his complex identity as a man, a father, a son, a German, and an American. How does one honor his heritage in a war against his own? Bonnie must be strong for her son, but how do you make a living when you’ve had a wonderful man in your life to be your other half? Mental illness is not a talked-about issue, so what do you do when it overcomes you and threatens your life? William is a boy who wants to make his father proud, and that means being a strong soldier for his father. In an ever changing world, with a father who lived so very different from you, how do you honor him and all he has done for you? It’s a burden William lives with throughout the novel, and we’ll be witness to his pushing past it, or not.
I love Brown’s respect and the honor she pays to everyone involved in the war. By switching back and forth between the perspective of Jacob and Bonnie through their own chapters, she acknowledges the short and long lasting effects on not only a soldier but also their family and loved ones.
Brown makes a story of war more intimate and hits closer to home by allowing us to jump inside of Bonnie’s mind and explore the hardships she had to endure as a single mother. Hers were some of my favorite chapters, not only because I’m a woman (but it does help that I could easily imagine myself in her place). What would I, what would you, be willing to do without your partner around?
For many, and for Bonnie, it would be agony, and Brown makes sure that we feel the weight of the world on Bonnie’s shoulders. Brown has the ability to make simple details, like Bonnie making a friend at her tiresome job, feel miraculous. Bonnie takes off her heels during her lunch break and runs her toes through the grass. Colette, soon to be her friend, joins her. It’s the sweet moments like this one that make An Enemy Like Me so precious and poignant.
A father/son relationship is a complex and rich dynamic, and Brown does not disappoint here. She opens William’s heart for us to see, and it becomes painfully beautiful to see him longing to please and honor his father. Brown starts off the novel strong with the very inception of this longing during a tearful goodbye to his father.
Jacob is going off to fight the Japanese, and William observes everyone sending him off with an innocent yet sad confusion. Jacob tells him, “Don’t cry, William. Your daddy doesn’t need to see you cry as he goes off to war. You need to be a big soldier.” He obeys and will continue to obey his father. It is his sweetness and innocence in such brutal times which is so heartrending—emblematic of the power of Brown’s work. She captures society’s appointment of men as the strong ones all throughout the novel, and it is a theme that can be explored in so many ways, but Brown’s treatment of it is especially memorable.
I’d recommend An Enemy Like Me to anyone who loves exploring the complicated family dynamics of first generation Americans—and the families before and after them. While it is set during World War II, Brown makes it clear that this is not only a story of war, but of love and what we will do for it.
I saw myself in each of the characters, because Brown knows how to humanize each and every one of them, making their seemingly particular stories and identities relatable and grounded. I got goosebumps when the family received good news and pangs of fear when the future was unclear for them. It makes me appreciate all of the struggles generations before me have had to go through, and just as William, I feel a responsibility to make it mean something. Sacrifices are aplenty in An Enemy Like Me, and it is what connects each of these characters to each other, asking, What would you do for love?
Publisher: Atmosphere Press
Genre: Historical Fiction / WWII
Print Length: 328 pages
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