On February 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, authorizing the U.S. military to ban anyone from certain areas of the country, with primary focus on the West Coast. Eventually the order was used to imprison 120,000 people of Japanese descent in incarceration camps such as the Rohwer Relocation Center in remote Desha County, Arkansas. This time of fear and prejudice (the U.S. government formally apologized for the relocations in 1982) and the Arkansas Delta are the setting for Camp Nine. The novel’s narrator, Chess Morton, lives in tiny Rook Arkansas. Her days are quiet and secluded until the appearance of a “relocation” center built for what was, in effect, the imprisonment of thousands of Japanese Americans. Chess’s life becomes intertwined with those of two young internees and an American soldier mysteriously connected to her mother’s past. As Chess watches the struggles and triumphs of these strangers and sees her mother seek justice for the people who briefly and involuntarily came to call the Arkansas Delta their home, she discovers surprising and disturbing truths about her family’s painful past.
In Schiffer's finely wrought debut novel set in Rook, Ark. in 1942 12-year old Chess Morton's quiet life of plantations and bayous changes abruptly after her wealthy landowning grandfather sells some worthless land to the government. Housing 10,000 new residents, Camp Nine becomes one of many camps where West Coast Japanese were held in isolation during WWII. Chess's bored widowed mother, who had studied art in California, offers to teach art classes to the Japanese. After she enlists a reluctant Chess to help her, mother and daughter become friends with the Matsui family, including sons Henry and David. Henry enlists, but his father is imprisoned for failing to correctly answer a government questionnaire. Mrs. Matsui, shunned by the other women because they felt her husband brought dishonor to his family, has a nervous breakdown, and David attempts to romance a daughter from a hard-scrabble white sharecropper family. As she watches her mother thwart local conventions by championing the Japanese, Chess matures. Schiffer immerses readers in the thick bayou air and community tensions.