Friday, August 26, 2011

Tallgrass, by Sandra Dallas

Tallgrass is narrated by adolescent Rennie Stroud, who finds herself the only child left at home on her family's southeastern Colorado sugar beet farm. Her brother Buddy has enlisted to fight in World War II, and her sister has moved to Denver to work in the defense industry. Meanwhile, Japanese Americans are being brought to live at the Tallgrass internment camp (a fictionalized version of the Amache camp) just down the road from the Stroud farm.

The community of Ellis, Colorado, does not show its best side as the Japanese Americans arrive. Many businesses put up signs saying they will not serve Japanese, people harass the new residents as they get off the train, and a trio of loathsome lay-abouts go farther than mere harassment. The situation gets even worse when one of Rennie's friends is raped and murder, with many in the community suspecting someone from Tallgrass must be responsible.

In contrast to many others in the community, Rennie's father chooses to treat the Japanese Americans as he would any other neighbors. While Rennie and her mother experience some conflict about the family's relationship with the camp, they eventually come around. The family dynamic is one of the book's strongest points.

Tallgrass is a well-intentioned book--Dallas wrote it out of concern that (1) people did not know enough about this chapter in U.S. history and (2) events at Guantanamo Bay forced her to consider that we might be repeating past mistakes. Unfortunately, it is not very effective as a novel--the characters are too clearly "good" or "evil," and the plot is predictable. The novel begins "The summer I was thirteen, the Japanese came to Ellis," suggesting that events are being remembered by Rennie as an adult--but that retrospective view is not used to any advantage. In fact, we are reminded of it so sparingly that when we read a sentence like "Some would live there for three years, until V-J day," it seems out of place.

There are much better books--fiction and nonfiction--about the internment (When the Emperor Was Divine and A Fence Away from Freedom to name just two). I would recommend reading them and skipping Tallgrass.

Favorite passage:
When I was little, I'd told Mom that if there were a fire, I wasn't sure whether Granny would save me or the quilts. Mom had warned me to be careful with matches.

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