BY SANDRA DALLAS
During World War II, a family finds life turned upside-down when the government opens a Japanese internment camp in their small Colorado town. After a young girl is murdered, all eyes turn to the newcomers. Rennie has just turned thirteen, and until this time, life has been predictable and fair. But the winds of change are coming and with them, a shift in her perspective and a discovery of secrets that can destroy even the most sacred things. Part thriller, part historical novel, Tallgrass is a riveting exploration of the darkest—and best—parts of the human heart.
"Tallgrass will undoubtedly draw apt comparisons with such novels as To Kill a Mockingbird and Snow Falling on Cedars."
—William Kent Krueger, author of the Corcoran O’Connor novels
I first visited Amache, the World War II Japanese relocation camp near Granada, Colo., that I’ve renamed Tallgrass, on a pheasant-hunting trip in 1961. Later, I found out that my University of Denver journalism classes were held in an old Amache barracks building that had been moved to the campus. It wasn’t until 2005, however, that I considered the disgraceful saga of Japanese internment during World War II as a subject for a novel. That was when I read a superb book on the camp, Amache: The Story of Japanese Internment in Colorado During World War II. At the same time, I was disturbed by news stories of suspected Iraqi War terrorists being held without charges at Guantanamo Bay. I couldn’t help wondering if there were a corollary between these two disturbing situations. Since I am not Japanese, it would have been presumptuous of me to write from the point of view of an evacuee. So I tell my story through the voice of Rennie Stroud, a 13-year-old Caucasian girl whose family lives adjacent to the camp.
I moved to Denver in 1945, the year that Amache closed, and I’ve known a number of Japanese American evacuees who were interned at Amache as well as at Heart Mountain in Wyoming, two of the 10 relocation camps in the U.S. I’m grateful to them for sharing their experiences.
AN EXCERPT FROM
The summer I was thirteen, the Japanese came to Ellis. Not Ellis, exactly, but to the old Tallgrass Ranch, which the government had turned into a relocation camp. Tallgrass was a mile and a half from Ellis, less than a mile past our farm, and it was one of the camps the government was building then to house the Japanese. In early 1942, the Japanese on the West Coast had been rounded up and incarcerated in places such as the Santa Anita race-track. Those destined for Colorado waited there until streets had been bladed into the yucca and sagebrush at Tallgrass, guard towers and barracks thrown up, and the camp fenced off with bob-wire. Then they were put on a train and sent a thousand miles to Ellis. Irem ember the crowd of townspeople at the depot the day the first Japanese arrived. The arrival date was supposed to be a secret, but we knew the evacuees were coming, because the government had alerted the stationmaster and hired bus drivers, and guards with guns patrolled the station platform. I’d sneaked away from my parents and gone to the depot, too, because I’d never seen any Japanese.
I expected them to look like the cartoons of Hirohito in the newspaper, with slanted eyes and buckteeth and skin like rancid butter. All these years later, Irecall Iwa s disappointed that they didn’t appear to be a “yellow peril” at all. They were so ordinary. That is what I remember most about them.
The Japanese gripped the handrails as they got off the train because the steps were steep and their legs were short, and they frowned and blinked into the white-hot sun. They had made the trip with the shades in the coaches pulled down, and the glare of the prairie hurt their eyes. Most of the evacuees on that first train were men, dressed in suits, rumpled now after the long ride, ties that were loosened, and straw hats. Some had on felt hats, although it was August.
The few women wore tailored skirts and blouses and summer dresses with shoulder pads, coats over their arms. They pulled scarves from their pocketbooks and tied them around their heads to keep the hot wind from blowing dust into their hair. Some of the women had on wedgies or open-toed spectator pumps and silk or rayon stockings. Each evacuee carried a single suitcase, because that was all they had been allowed to bring with them.
The adults stood quietly in little groups, whispering, waiting to be told what to do. I expected one of the guards to take charge, to steer the people to the school buses lined up along the platform or tell them to go inside where it was cooler. But no one did, so they waited, confused. I wanted to point the evacuees to the drinking fountain and the bathrooms in the depot. They must have needed them. But I didn’t dare speak up.
Some of the men took out packages of Camels and Chesterfields and Lucky Strikes and lighted cigarettes. None of them chewed tobacco, and none of the women smoked. Several children, cooped up for days, seemed glad to be out in the open, and they squatted down to examine the tracks or ran around, jerky as Mexican jumping beans. A little boy smiled at me, but I turned away, embarrassed to make a connection with him. I wondered if the kids were supposed to be our enemies, too. Then the mothers called to them, and the children joined their parents, fidgeting as they looked at us shyly. Only the children took notice of the group of townspeople on the platform staring at them, many hostile, all of us curious.
A man who stepped down from the last car removed his hat, an expensive one that did not have sweat stains like the hats the farmers wore. He smoothed his hair, which appeared to have been slicked back with Vitalis or some other hair oil, because every strand was in place, despite the wind. Holding the hat in his hand, he rubbed his wrist across his forehead. Shading his eyes, he squinted at the prairie grass that glinted like brass in the sun and asked the man beside him, “Where are we?” The second man shrugged, and I suddenly felt sorry for the Japanese. What if the government had taken over our farm and sent us far away on the train, and nobody would tell us our destination? But we weren’t Japanese. We were Americans.
“Ellis. You’re at Ellis, Colorado,” a woman near me called out.
Her husband shushed her. “Don’t tell those people where they’re at. Don’t you know nothing?” He rubbed his big face with a hand that the sun had turned as brown as a walnut. The man had shaved before coming to town. You could tell by the tiny clots of dried blood where he had nicked himself and the clumps of whiskers the razor had missed. They stuck up in the folds of his skin like willow shoots in a gully.
The Japanese man looked into the crowd, searching for the woman who’d spoken. She kept still, however, so he put his hat back on, tightened his tie, and buttoned his suit jacket as he leaned down to whisper something to a girl about my age. I admired her saddle shoes, thinking she must be rich, because saddle shoes cost more than the plain brown oxfords Mom bought me. I wondered how long her shoes would stay white in the dirt of Tallgrass. It wasn’t likely that she’d put shoe polish into her small suitcase. The girl shook back her hair, which was long and black and glossy. I had never seen such hair. It was as if coal had been spun into long threads. She unfolded a scarf splashed with pink flowers and put it around her head, tying it at the back of her neck, under her hair.
“Silk. Real silk,” a woman near me muttered, but I could not tell if she was jealous or just stating a fact.
A man beside her observed, “I thought they’d have buckteeth. They don’t have buckteeth.”
“You got buckteeth enough for all of ’em,” called one of the boys at the back of the crowd. The man turned around and searched the faces, but he couldn’t identify the kid who’d spoken.
I could. He was Beaner Jack. I knew because Danny Spano stopped chugging his Grapette long enough to slap Beaner on the back and say, “Good one.” Beaner and Danny were always together, except for the time when Danny was in the army. He’d been in an accident at Camp Carson, near Colorado Springs, and hurt his foot, and the army didn’t want him anymore, so he’d been mustered out. Now he was back in Ellis. Both Danny and Beaner were eighteen, the age of my sister, Marthalice, who had gone to Denver to work in an arms plant after she graduated in May. I didn’t know whether she’d done it because she was patriotic or because she was blue after her favorite boyfriend, Hank Gantz, quit school to join the navy. My brother, Buddy, who was twenty-one, had left college to enlist in the army the week after Pearl Harbor.
“Haw haw,” said Marlys, one of the high school girls who were standing beside the boys. She smiled at Danny, because he was tall and had curly black hair like a movie star. Beaner, on the other hand, was squat, with hair as thin as corn silk. He’d be bald one day, like the rest of the Jacks. And mean, too. I didn’t understand how people could be as mean as the Jacks. It was just their nature, I guess. They had meanness in their bones. I couldn’t imagine my telling a grown-up that he had buckteeth, but I wasn’t surprised that Beaner did.
The bucktoothed man glared at Marlys.
“Beaner’s a bushel of cow pucky,” whispered Betty Joyce Snow, who was standing on the platform next to me, and we both giggled. With Marthalice gone, I was especially glad that Betty Joyce was my best friend. We told each other everything. Betty Joyce and I got along as squarely as anybody. She’d sneaked away from her father’s hardware store to come to the station, and I knew she’d have the dickens to pay if her dad found out.
Then Lum Smith observed, “I don’t see nothing wrong with them. They don’t even hardly look like Japs, some of ’em anyway.” He was a small, henpecked man with no chin, like Andy Gump in the comic strips. His wife, Bird, frowned at him. Bird Smith’s hair was in pin curls, covered by a red bandanna that was tied at the top of her head. The ends of the scarf stuck up like rabbit ears. Stout, with legs the size of Yule logs, she didn’t look much like her name. She didn’t sound like it, either. Mrs. Smith was one of the dozen members of Mom’s quilting group, the Jolly Stitchers, and consequently they considered themselves friends, but Mom didn’t seem to care much for her. I was glad that at thirteen, I didn’t have to be friends with anybody.
“That’s why they’re so dangerous,” Mr. Rubey said. “You’d not hardly think they was the enemy. But it’s a fact. Some of them have a shortwave with a direct line to Tojo.” He jerked back his head for emphasis, sticking out his chest, which made his overalls pull up over his big hams.
“Shortwave radios don’t send signals that far,” his son Edgar told him.
“Was anybody asking you, mister?”
“No, sir.” Edgar was the smartest boy in my grade, but he was a twerp. Once, I said New York City was the capital of New York State, and Edgar asked if I wanted to bet on it. I was so sure I was right that I bet a quarter. But I was wrong, and Edgar lorded it over me, saying only a dummy would bet against him. He’d known all along that the capital was Albany, because he’d visited his aunt and uncle there. That wasn’t fair, and I didn’t have a quarter. But I wasn’t a welsher, so I paid off Edgar at five cents a week. Then he made me pay him three cents’ interest.
The guards moved among the evacuees then, pointing to school buses that Ellis folks still call “the yellow dogs.” The Japanese picked up their suitcases, the women moving about like hens as they gathered their children and scurried toward the open doors.
“They ride on a machine, while I ride my horse to town,” said Olney Larsoo, who ran the filling station. His face was raw, as if it had been scoured by sand, like paint on a frame house in a storm. “I’m a World War One vet, and they’re a bunch of damn foreigners.” He leaned over the edge of the platform and spit out his wad.
“Aw, they can’t help being born that way,” someone said.
“I believe the government ought to make them go back to where they come from,” Frank Martin said, loudly enough for one of the Japanese men boarding the bus to hear. The evacuee turned around, and Mr. Martin leaned forward and repeated louder, “Ought to make them go back where they come from.”
A man made his way through the crowd then and said just loudly enough for all of us to hear, “Those folks came from California. Where at is it you’re from, Frank?” People laughed because Mr. Martin had moved to Ellis from Italy after the Great War, and he ate spaghetti and sold dago red to the high school boys for fifty cents a jar. His real name was Martinelli, and some people said that meant jackass in Italian. Mr. Martin sent a reproachful look at the man who’d spoken.
I couldn’t see him, but I recognized the voice. It belonged to my father, and he came up beside me and took my arm. “We’ve been looking for you, Squirt. We thought you were with Granny. I reckon there’s chores to do.” He glanced over at Betty Joyce, who’d begun studying the splintery boards of the platform, but he didn’t say anything to her. If Betty Joyce’s father thought I should go home, he’d tell me in a second, but Dad wouldn’t discipline another man’s child.
“I wanted to see the Japs,” I said, my face red. I knew Dad was disappointed that I’d come to the station. He’d said on the way into town that Ellis folks should have the decency to leave the evacuees alone. He hadn’t exactly told me I couldn’t go to the depot, but that wouldn’t be much of a defense if Dad decided to scold me. He’d accuse me of fuzzy-headed logic, and he might feel he had to start telling me what to do again, as if I were still a little kid. Since Buddy and Marthalice had gone away, Dad had trusted me to make more of my own decisions. But at least he wouldn’t smack me the way Betty Joyce’s father smacked her.
“I believe they are called Japanese.”
“These here are Japs, Loyal. Can’t you see that?” Mr. Rubey asked my father, scratching his stomach through his overalls.
”All I see are some unlucky Americans. By Dan, I dislike the enemy as much as the next fellow, but I don’t see any enemy here,” he said as Mr. Rubey turned his hands into fists. People stepped back a little. Dad wasn’t a big man, just average in height and size, and his dark hair had begun to creep back on his forehead. He didn’t look like a fighting man, but folks around Ellis knew enough not to take him on.
Once when I was in third grade, Ralph Muggins complained to the teacher, Mr. Gross, that someone had stolen a boiled egg from his lunch bucket. Mr. Gross told us all to open our lunch pails. I had a giant boiled egg in mine, and the teacher ordered me to admit I’d stolen it and apologize to Ralph. When I wouldn’t do it, Mr. Gross made me stand in the dark cloakroom. At first, I wasn’t scared, just humiliated, knowing that the drone in the room meant my classmates were talking about me, accusing me of being a thief. When the bell rang, dismissing classes, and the room grew quiet, however, I wondered if I’d have to stay there all night. The closet was stuffy, and the closeness made me sleepy, but I was afraid to sit down, for fear of rats. Dad was in town that afternoon and heard the bell and decided to give me a ride home. He ran into Mr. Gross as he was leaving the school. “Oops, I put Rennie in the cloakroom to punish her for stealing, and I forgot about her,” Mr. Gross told Dad, giving an apologetic shrug. “Good thing you came along, Mr. Stroud. I sure wouldn’t like to have to come back all this way to let her out.” Dad rushed to the classroom, grabbed me, and carried me outside. Then he slugged Mr. Gross so hard that the teacher fell to the dirt, breaking his glasses. Dad would have killed him, but Mr. Gross refused to stand up, and Dad wouldn’t hit a man who was down. Although he apologized to me in class the next day, Mr. Gross didn’t come back the following year, and folks said he should have known all along that Mom had put the boiled egg in my lunch that morning: Mom’s eggs were the biggest in Bondurant County, and the Muggins raised guinea hens. I never liked closed, dark spaces after that. And people were careful not to cross my father.
Dad stared until Mr. Rubey put his hands into his pockets; then Dad said, “Good day to you, sir.” He turned and, pulling me behind him, went back through the crowd, people parting to let us through. I looked over my shoulder to tell Betty Joyce good-bye, but she was watching the yellow dogs lumber onto the washboard Tallgrass Road. The yellow dogs sent up plumes of dust, which settled over the people at the depot. Men took out bandanns to wipe their faces, which were grimy with dust and sweat. A woman pulled her long apron up over her head. I’d seen pictures of California vineyards and orange groves, and I thought how bewildered the Japanese would be when they saw their new home carved out of the treeless prairie. Some would live there for three years, until V-J day.
As Dad and I jumped off the platform next to the depot, a man with a pencil and a pad of paper got up from the running board of a car where he had been sitting, watching, and came over to us. “Seems like folks aren’t too happy about the Japs being here,” he said. Dad stared at the man until he explained who he was. “Jeff Cheever, Denver Post. I’m doing a story on the Tallgrass Internment Camp. Like I say, it seems that you wheat farmers aren’t too happy it’s here.”
Dad didn’t answer at first. Instead, he pulled out the makings, sprinkled tobacco onto a cigarette paper, rolled it up, and licked it shut. The reporter took out a lighter, but before he could flick it, Dad struck a kitchen match on his overalls and lighted the cigarette, which was twisted at the ends and bent a little in the middle. Dad glanced over at a second man, who was fitting a flashbulb into a big square camera. “Sugar beets. This is sugar beet country. You better get that right, son.”
The reporter shrugged. “So how do you feel about the Japs?”
Dad inhaled and blew smoke out of his mouth. “There’s some would like to talk to you about it. I’m not amongst them. Good day to you.” Dad touched his straw hat to the man and started off.
“Hey,” called the reporter, “Don’t you want to see your name in print?”
Dad stopped, and Ih oped he’d changed his mind. Getting our name in the paper would be exciting. People would read what Dad had said and remark on it. Kids would say, “Hey, I read about your dad in the Post.” I ’d cut out the story and paste it inmy scrapbook and get extra copies to send to Buddy and Marthalice.
But Dad hadn’t changed his mind. “Are you hard of hearing, young man?” he asked.
Before the reporter could reply, Mr. Smith interrupted. “Well, I’m not so particular. I’ve got a piece to say, if you want to listen. I think they ought to ’ve shipped them to Japan, and the governor with them. If the governor had ran for office right now, he wouldn’t get my vote or anybody else’s.” When the government announced it was evacuating the Japanese from the West Coast, most states made it plain they didn’t want them, but Colorado governor Ralph Carr said it was all right to send them to Colorado. He was never elected to office again.
The reporter wrote all that down, asking, “And what was your name?”
“Lum Smith. That’s Lum for Columbus, father of our country,” Mr. Smith said. He grinned while the photographer took his picture. I wondered if Christopher Columbus was the same father of our country as the first president of the United States, Mr. George Washington.
Now that the buses were gone, people crowded around the reporter, probably hoping to get their names into the paper, too. Dad and I started toward our wagon.
“You should have talked to him, Loyal. You could have told him there’s some of us here that don’t hate the Japanese. That reporter’s going to write us up like we’re a bunch of rednecks,” said Redhead Joe Lee, who was standing at the edge of the crowd. He ran one of the two drugstores in Ellis, the one where we traded, because Mom didn’t like the way Mr. Elliot, the owner of the other, patted her on the fanny once when she went in to buy a bottle of mercurochrome. That was okay with me, because I didn’t like Mr. Elliot’s son, Pete, who was a friend of Beaner and Danny. The Lee Drug had perfume and dusting powder on the counters and a marble soda fountain and tables with wire legs and wire chairs. Someday, I’d have a boyfriend who would take me there, and I could sit with one leg under me, the way Marthalice did, and lean my elbows on the table while I drank a Coca-Cola through a straw and flirted. Maybe he’d buy me a blue bottle of Evening in Paris cologne for my birthday. Sure, I thought, right after I win first place on “Major Bowes’ Original Amateur Hour.”
“You’re the fellow that can give it to him straight,” said Mr. Lee, who was in shirtsleeves and had on a vest that was buttoned wrong, maybe because he’d been in a hurry to take off his white coat and get to the depot. He was almost as handsome as Dad, and Mom called him “Ellis’s most eligible bachelor.” That didn’t mean much, however, because most of the other bachelors were hired men.
Dad smoked his cigarette down to his fingers, then dropped it in the dirt and ground it out with his foot. “I’m straight as a string, all right, Red. I sure am good-looking, too.” Dad paused. “ Isn’t that right, Mother?”
Mom had come up behind me, and I turned and saw her look Dad up and down before she replied. “You got that string part right.”
“Oh, she thinks I’m good-looking as a barber. She can’t hardly keep her hands off me,” Dad told Mr. Lee, grinning at Mom so openly that she shook her head and looked away. Mom was tall, and instead of being nicely plump like she used to be, she’d lost weight since Buddy had joined up. Her face had become gaunt, and she seemed tired all the time. There was gray in her blond hair, too. But Dad still told her she was the prettiest thing since strawberry ice cream, and he believed it. I suppose Ikn ew that there was something special about my parents, although I never thought much about it. They never criticized each other like the Smiths, never argued the way Betty Joyce’s parents did. They respected each other—and me, too—and I was still hoping they wouldn’t say I’d let them down by coming to the station to watch the Japanese. There wasn’t anything as hard to take as my folks’ disappointment; now that my brother and sister were gone, I had to bear all their disappointment.
“Oh, go on. Don’t talk so, Loyal,” Mom said.
“Red here thinks I should say something to that reporter over there, tell him we don’t all hate the Japanese. What do you think?”
“I think you ought not to stir up trouble. Who knows what the Jolly Stitchers would say to that?” Then she told us to come along because Granny was waiting and might wander off.
“And how is the old lady?” Mr. Lee asked, scratching at his head. He had only a fringe of hair, and his freckled bald head was always peeling, even in the winter.
“Granny forgets. And she frets about that. But then she forgets she forgets.” Dad sighed. “There’s things I’d like to forget right about now, so I guess she isn’t in such a bad way.”
My grandmother had forgotten most of what had happened in the past forty years. I loved Granny, who was sweet and smelled like cinnamon and lavender powder, and sometimes wandered into my room and slept with me. That was because when my sister went off to Denver, Mom moved me out of the big bedroom we’d shared and into Granny’s room, giving Granny the front bedroom. It was sunny, and Granny could sit by the window, piecing quilt tops. “I’m making this one for Mattie,” she’d told me last week. Mattie was her sister, who’d lived in Mingo and died there in the early part of the century. Sometimes Granny forgot she had moved into the front bedroom, and then she’d go into her old room, curling up like a kitten in the bed beside me and keeping me warm. From time to time, she would snap out of her dreamy world and recall something that had happened a long time ago—or at little as a month or two ago. “I didn’t make Buddy a quilt to take off to war, because soldier boys now have good warm blankets. Remember, Buddy wrote that in his letter,” she’d said one night at dinner.
Dad said good-bye to Mr. Lee, and as we walked away, Dad asked Mom if she’d bought that yellow material she’d had her eye on.
“I can put that quarter to better use,” she told him.
Dad said he didn’t guess we’d lose the farm for two bits. Besides, with the war, crops were going sky-high, and we’d be rolling in money. “Might be we could sell a little something to the Tallgrass Camp. They’re going to need eggs.”
“Lord, Loyal, I’d hate to make money off the Japanese. I don’t know what’s people to think if we did that.”
“Somebody has to provide them with eggs, and if we do it, those people’ll eat choice. It wouldn’t surprise me if the government’s giving them the powdered stuff,” Dad told her. “Squirt and me will wait in the wagon with Granny whilst you buy your cloth.”
“Perhaps I will, then. Granny favors yellow.” Mom didn’t really believe the Depression was over, and it pained her to spend money on herself, so she had to be convinced that it was going for someone else.
“You might pick up a nickel’s worth of licorice, too,” Dad said. He and I were crazy about licorice, although nobody else in the family liked it.
Mom went off to the dry goods—she walked slower now than she used to—while Dad and I headed toward the wagon. We had a truck, but we drove the wagon when we could to save on gasoline and tires. We were so close to town that we might have walked if it hadn’t been for Granny.
“ How do you feel about the Japanese, Squirt?” Dad asked as we reached the wagon, where Granny sat with her piecing. One good thing about being the only kid left at home was that Dad asked my opinion more often. He listened, too.
I thought hard how to answer him, because I wanted to say something that Dad would be proud of, that he would repeat at the feed store. He’d say, “You know, my daughter says . . .” But the truth was, I didn’t know how I felt. The Japanese at the depot didn’t seem like alien enemies working for the downfall of America, but how would I know? The government wouldn’t have sent them to Tallgrass if it hadn’t believed they were dangerous. That made me uneasy, and I wished the camp were someplace else.
“Somebody at the depot said they were spies and that we ought to lock them up,” I said.
“If you locked up people for minding other folks’ business, the jail would be full.” Dad gave me a sly glance. “They’d have a cell just for your mom’s quilt circle.”
I thought some more, and then I said slowly, “I think the Japanese are bringing the war home to Ellis.”
Dad nodded, looking off down the Tallgrass Road. The dust had settled, and there was no sign of the evacuees or the yellow dogs. Maybe he did repeat what I said at the feed store. He told Mom, and years later, he reminded me of it. Tallgrass did indeed bring the war to us, brought it more than the shortages or rationing or the news on the radio. It made the war as close to us as what happened to Buddy. I grew up during World War II. When the war started, I was a little girl. By the time it ended, I’d become a young woman who had seen much of sorrow and sadness. Tallgrass became our own personal war.