By Kermit Roosevelt
Reading Group Guide
We hope these topics and ideas will enrich your conversation.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
The book opens with Cash Harrison’s carefree youth. How does the Pearl Harbor attack change him, his loved ones, and the mood of the country?
Is Cash enthusiastic about the predictable life set before him as a lawyer, and as Suzanne’s husband? How does it relate to his role in his own family?
Cash says, “I’m needed. I’ve been chosen. I am called. It may be west or it may be east, but that makes no difference. I have a direction now; I know where I am headed. I am going to war.” Does the idea of serving in the army give him a sense of purpose, perhaps for the first time?
Cash wants to serve his country but his loved ones want him to stay home. He is willing to sacrifice himself for the greater good—but people close to him have different ideas about what the greater good requires. How does this set the tone for rest of the book? Can you relate to this, have you had to sacrifice something or someone to do what you think is right? Did people close to you agree?
Justice Black tells Cash on page 27: Every man’s got his purpose, maybe I can teach you yours.” What is Cash’s purpose, and what does he ultimately learn from Justice Black?
The book shows how we react, or, overreact out of fear when terrorism strikes. How does that affect us in our daily lives? Do we become suspicious of others, especially people are different from us? Are we more willing to accept government policies that hurt others if it makes us feel safer? Is it okay to stray from our individual and national values in times of crisis—“Do whatever is necessary” as FDR said?
On page 13, Herbert Wechsler tells Cash he is “the right sort of guy” to clerk for Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black. The question of whether someone is “the right sort of guy” recurs throughout the book, and Cash learns many of the people described that way are actually villains. Who betrays him the most?
When he arrives in Washington, DC to clerk for Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black, Cash is idealistic and thinks the government can do no wrong, but then he uncovers criminal acts and conspiracies. His emotional journey of disillusionment reflects the author’s own experience after 9/11. How do you feel about what happened under FDR’s watch?
On page 53, Felix Frankfurter tells Cash, “Law is a tool to administer justice. And when it does not serve justice . . . Well, justice must be served.” Do you agree?
The author says FDR was a great man and a great president, and this episode shows how “good people can do bad things.” Do you agree?
When FDR authorizes executive order 9066 and sets the stage for Japanese American internment, the public trusts he’s doing the right thing. But it ends in one of the worst civil rights violations in U.S. history. If he had shown more empathy, if he had put more thought into the moral side of the law, do you think he might have taken a different course? What can we learn from his mistake?
Consider the following five passages and talk about how they changed your perspective:
Page 17: “Justice Black is another story. He has always been Roosevelt’s man, eager to tear down any barriers the Constitution sets before his master.”
Page145: “Hugo does not believe in Law; he thinks it is nothing more than manipulation of language in support of a predetermined result.”
Page 292: “I wonder why I ever thought that the War Department machinations had to be the product of some external conspiracy. This is just my government at work. Who is loyal, who is not? Who is a friend and who an enemy? Whoever they say. And the government does not make mistakes.”
Page 299: “I know what the government has done, holding innocent people, fabricating evidence against them, manipulating the cases.”
Page 302/303: Cash tells Justice Frankfurter, “When I first met you, you said it [the Supreme Court] was a temple of truth.” Ah,” he says. “I was politicking then… We are at war, and in time of war there is only one rule. Form your battalion and fight.”
Cash says, “We do not move forward by shutting our eyes to the past.” Frankfurter responds, “Yes, we do… That is exactly how we move forward.” Frankfurter means we should look away. Is that ever a good idea?
The internment was unconstitutional, it shattered the lives of tens of thousands of innocent Americans, and it didn’t actually make the country safer. But if it did make us safer, do you think it would be justified?
The theme of sacrificing some people to protect others plays out in different contexts throughout the novel. It is the official justification for forcing Japanese-Americans, most of whom the government conceded were loyal, to leave their homes. It is Cash’s justification for pressuring the Hoshidan to renounce their citizenship and removing them from Tule Lake. It is Judge Skinner’s justification for most of what he does. Is it ever morally right to hurt some people in order to protect others? If so, how can you tell when it is justified? And who would you trust to make the decision?
Another pervasive theme is loyalty vs. disloyalty. Who in the novel is loyal—and what are they loyal to? When Cash and Edward Ennis decide to sabotage the government’s case before the Supreme Court, are they loyal or disloyal to the government? To the Court? To the Constitution? Some Japanese-Americans went along with the relocation and detention program on the grounds that this was the sacrifice their country asked of them in time of war, that it was their chance to prove their loyalty to America. Others thought that by challenging the program in court, they were demonstrating loyalty to American values. The same division existed among detained Japanese-Americans subject to the draft. Who do you think was right?
Another test of allegiance is when different loyalties conflict. Cash finds himself in situations where his allegiance is torn—as an example, he must decide if he will stand by the government and those of his inner circle, or stand by moral principle. Have you ever felt that your loyalty is torn?
Throughout the novel, Cash wants to do the right thing. He also wants to know he’s doing it, to feel the moral clarity he felt when he tried to enlist after hearing about Pearl Harbor on the radio. Does he ever get that feeling again? Who else in the book is sure that what they are doing is right? Is moral certainty a good guide to moral rightness?
The author says, “When you dig down into the constitutional law questions that the Supreme Court considers, you find these are really just basic moral questions.” He writes, “The Constitution is made for war as well as peace.” With that in mind, do you think it’s right to bend the rules of the Constitution in certain circumstances?
Do you think Cash loves Suzanne? He shows fearless determination and initiative in his perilous journey for justice. Why doesn’t he show that in his relationship with her?
If Suzanne sacrificed her own needs and desires to support him in his quest, do you think they would have stayed together?
What did you think when Cash told Suzanne that he would try to be understanding if she kissed someone else: did he seem thoughtful or uncaring? Is it loyal to forgive people for mistakes, or to hold them to their values? Is that a theme or question that appears in the larger storyline as well?
When Cash finds himself at the center of debates over rights, justice, and law, it prompts a series of moral dilemmas. He is determined to do what’s right, he knows the fate of tens of thousands of Americans – and the nation’s honor – hinge on his decisions. Through legal and moral analysis, he comes to his own conclusions. Do you think he makes the right choices? Which moral quandary struck you the most? Which of his decisions surprised you the most?
While many of the characters are real-life figures, Cash is a composite character based on heroes who fought against the internment. Are you inspired by his heroism? Do you admire his idealism and sense of civic responsibility? Which act of heroism surprised you the most?
Talk about the different ways that Cash thinks he is bound by honor. Does his idea of honor and duty ever lead him astray? Does he ever violate his ideals?
The government maintained that the evacuation was a reasonable measure to keep Americans safe, even though they knew most of the Japanese Americans were loyal. The ACLU said the evacuation was driven by racism and fear mongering. It turned out the ACLU was right. Did Gordon Hirayabashi do the right thing by breaking the curfew?
On page 118, Cash reflects, “I am lost… adrift in an endless sea, and there is no law… there are only men.” It is often said that as a nation, we aspire to have a government of laws, not men. What did you learn about the inner workings of the government, justice, and law through Cash’s perspective?
On page 114, Gordon Hirabayashi’s lawyer state, “There is ample other evidence that race hostility and prejudice were the driving forces. There is no doubt that most of these people are loyal Americans.” He continues, “Evacuation took six months… There was ample time to consider these people on their own merits as individuals.” What was your reaction to this? Were you surprised to learn about the mistakes and cover-ups that led to the internment?
Which character is most villainous? Which is the most moral?
On pages 122 and 123 Solicitor General Charles Fahy says: “The central issue in this case is the war power of the government. How far may it go to protect the nation? … We regret the inconvenience caused to them. But all Americans, of Japanese origin or not, must be prepared to make sacrifices. In time of war, it is not enough to say ‘I am a citizen and I have rights… One must also say, ‘I am a citizen, and I have obligations.’” Do you agree? Would you be willing to give up your freedoms in the same circumstance?
Over and again, Cash’s loyalties are torn between doing what’s right and doing what’s expected. He has to decide whom he will hurt and whom he will protect. Did you agree with his decisions?
Re-read the conversation between Cash and Judge Skinner on page 361. Judge Skinner says that he sent Cash to the Supreme Court to protect him, to keep him safe. Cash answers, “I never wanted to be safe… I wanted to be good.” Talk about the significance of the statement, and the different ways that it’s reflected in Cash’s actions.
Attorney General Francis Biddle challenged the internment and ultimately decided it was unconstitutional but he wouldn’t take a strong enough stand against it. He came to regret this and said, “I hope to have enlarged the compass of my sympathy.” How important do you think sympathy – or empathy is to a strong democracy?
Can you relate this to your own life—have you stopped yourself from doing something because of fear or discomfort, only to look back with regret?
On page 366, Cash thinks, “I have crossed over, and that childhood is as far away and strange as something that happened to someone else in a land beyond the sea. That boy is not me, though I am what he became.” How does Cash change by the end of the book?
On page 368, Cash reflects that if Suzanne had not interrupted him, he would have killed Judge Skinner. Do you think he would have? How would you have thought about him as a character if he had?
Did the narrative change your perspective about current issues?
The last paragraph of the book is a lyrical, wistful reflection on America. Does it make you feel more optimistic about the future? Cash evidently believes that the future is still open, that Clara will welcome him. Do you think she will?