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Monday, February 07, 2011

Tallgrass

In Tallgrass, Sandra Dallas explores one of the more shameful aspects of American World War II history. Shortly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese-Americans were rounded up and imprisoned in various interment camps spread around the country. Tallgrass is the story of the impact one of those camps had on the locals of rural Ellis, Colorado, and those citizens that were forced to live within its fences for the rest of the war.

The story is told largely in the voice of young Rennie Stroud who lives on a Colorado beet farm with her parents and older brother. Rennie is well-placed to tell the story since her family’s farm is within easy walking distance of the new internment camp suddenly thrust upon the community. The townspeople are immediately curious about, and generally suspicious of, the newcomers, believing that the government has confined them to the camp for good reason. The Strouds, however, are an open-minded bunch, believing their new neighbors to be nothing more than a group of American citizens suffering unfair treatment at the hands of their government. This does not make the family at all popular with the majority of their fellow townspeople.

When a young girl, a friend of Rennie’s, is found brutally raped and murdered, most everyone in Ellis blames the Tallgrass camp for bringing this kind of criminal to their little community. Those already inclined to mistreat the camp’s residents verbally, are now even more inclined to threaten them physically and revengeful violence is only narrowly averted – for the moment.

Rennie has a different take on the situation. As more and more of the county’s young men, including her brother, volunteer to join the fight, it becomes difficult for the local farmers to plant and harvest their crops. In what the Strouds see as a win-win situation, they finally get permission to hire three young Japanese internees to help keep their farm solvent. As conditions continue to change, the family hires the sister of one of the boys and, eventually, two other Japanese women to help with the increased household workload. Over time, and despite the animosity aimed their way, the Strouds come to think of their Japanese employees as their extended family.

Tallgrass is a coming-of-age novel for Rennie Stroud, but it is equally a coming-of-age story for the whole town of Ellis, Colorado. That Rennie does a better job with the process is sad but not surprising. As the news from the Pacific front grows worse, and more local boys are killed or wounded there, the camp and its residents are often threatened with violence from the locals. The local sheriff finds it difficult to identify the murderer in their midst, and the Tallgrass internees will never be trusted or accepted for who they are until he does.

Tallgrass is a worthy addition to World War II home-front fiction, especially as it relates to what happened to Japanese-Americans during the war. It is written in a manner, and at a level, that makes it more effective as a Young Adult novel than as something aimed at an adult readership, however. The Strouds are just too perfect to be entirely believable and the Japanese characters are generally of the stereotypical variety. This one is perfect for middle and high school libraries and could be used as good supplemental material in history classes at either of those levels.

Rated at: 3.0 for Adult Readers
Rated at: 4.0 for YA Readers
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