Allison's Book Bag

Crystal City Lights by Holly Moulder

Posted on: December 11, 2013

Where do you get your ideas from? That’s the type of questions that books like Crystal City Lights by Holly Moudler inspires. Crystal City Lights is fictional story about a German-American family who were placed in an internment camp during World World II. The answer to how Moulder came up with idea is that she started writing her novel with England as the original setting, but soon discovered how many books had already been written with this location and conversely how few had been written about the internment camp in Texas. Two things impress me here. One is that despite having already started the writing of her novel, Moulder remained open to changing direction when a better story presented itself. Second is that Moulder took a relatively unknown subject and turned into an engaging adventure with a substantial factual basis.

Although written for young people, there’s a lot for readers of all ages to learn from Crystal City Lights. Foremost is the fact that during World War II, any American of German lineage suspected of showing loyalties to the Nazi party could be rounded-up for questioning by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and even forced to move to an internment camp. Moreover, their homes could be ransacked as part of the search for evidence. When a male head of the household was relocated, most often the family members were too. Otherwise, there was little way for the wife and the children to financially make ends meet. In Crystal City Lights, a couple of reasons that Dottie’s father landed in trouble is he unintentionally talked with party supporters and she happened to pick up a flyer being handed out by supporters. Not only is their home ransacked, but the son of a friend is arrested in front of his peers. As for the real internment camps, in some ways, they bore some resemblances to prison. There were armed guards patrolling and barbed wire surrounding the camp, flood lights at night, and shared showers. In other ways, the government tried to make the camps feel like a safe haven. Families were provided with tokens that could be used to purchase necessities such as food and clothes. Moreover, families could grow gardens, children could attend schools, and there were even entertainment venues. Obviously though, nothing could remove the pain of being forced to leave behind one’s pets and the bulk of one’s belongings. Moulder effectively captures this tenuous balance in Crystal City Lights, where Dottie’s family enjoy a Christmas shopping spree and evening movies, but also left behind pets and now face curfews. Crystal City Lights is a remarkably accurate and moving tale, right now to its tiniest detail such as when Corndogs, M&Ms, and the Slinky were invented.

Not a history fan? Crystal City Lights is a riveting tale in its own right. Some situations are on the lighter side and might bear you think of Nancy Drew or Hardy Boy adventures. For example, Dottie finds a hollow tree, which she and others use to send secret messages (using a real code) when forbidden to hang out with one another. Her brother is a prankster and so sometimes unusual animals end up in the men’s shared shower, which creates some of the humor in the story. The two of them sometimes overhear secrets they shouldn’t, when Dottie pursues investigative reporting, because of her dream to follow in the footsteps of Nellie Bly. On the darker side, there is the animosity of the different groups which have been interned together. For example, the German and Japanese Americans ridicule each other for their foods and other cultural differences. Actually, even within the German fraction, tempers run high between those who hate the United States for its unjust act of imprisoning them and those who love their chosen home of the United States even to the point of desiring to fight for it. Ultimately, this causes rifts between Dottie’s family and the family of her best friend. Last, there are rumors of a still, which apparently also has foundation in historical fact. As you can see, there’s lots of adventure to be enjoyed, even by those who prefer genres other than historical fiction.

Before I end, I have a couple more points. First, one of the angst moments involving Dottie’s brother, the father of her best friend, and the still seems contrived or at least cliché. As such, I knew ahead of the time what was going to happen, hoped it wouldn’t, and glumly accepted when it did. Second, during the whole time of reading Crystal City Lights, I found myself unable to effectively work on my own novel. Moulder creates such natural exposition and description that everything in my own seemed flawed by comparison. This is of course a compliment of her style. Above, I praised Moulder for her plot. Obviously, I hold Crystal City Lights in high regard. It’s a short read, running only about 200 pages, and so I encourage readers of all genres to check it out.

My rating? Bag it: Carry it with you. Make it a top priority to read.

How would you rate this book?

2 Responses to "Crystal City Lights by Holly Moulder"

Thanks, Allison, for lending me “Crystal City Lights.” Although it was written for young people, I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. As well it stimulated me to read about Canada’s internment camps (see and Anti-terrorism Act 2015 (see,_2015). Thinking about them reminded me of how hard it is for governments to balance security and civil rights concerns.

Thank you for your comment! American readers who are interested in learning more about Japanese interment might also check out the nonfiction text, Children of Manzanar. Also, fans of Holly Moulder’s historical fiction, please check back later this year for a review of her newest book: A Time To Be Brave.

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