(Viking, 377 pp., $18.95)
One of the worst chapters in American history was the imprisonment, purely for reasons of race, of Japanese-Americans during World War II. 'Relocation camps,' as they were called, were set up in the West, where more than 100,000 people were confined by a fearful society.
Among these camps was the Heart Mountain Relocation Camp, located near Cody, Wyo. For four years, the camp was Wyoming's largest community. About 10,000 Japanese-Americans wereimprisoned there during most of the 'good war.' They weren't totally isolated. Some were allowed to leave for day work or errands, and they could have visitors.
In this, her first novel, Gretel Ehrlich, best known for her widely praised essays about Wyoming in 'The Solace of Open Spaces,' tells the story of Heart Mountain's camp, its people and their relationships with their neighbors.
The Japanese-American side of the story is told principally through the eyes of Kai Nakamura, a doctoral candidate for whom the camp has mixed blessings. He is taken from his life and love in California, but is reunited with parents who had put him up for adoption when he was very young. He also discovers a brother he never knew existed.
The camp is next to a cattle ranch run by a young man named McKay. Helping him are Bobby Korematsu, the family cook who raised McKay, and a drunken but lovable old cowboy named Pinkey. Complicating McKay's life is a relationship he develops with Mariko, the wife of one of Heart Mountain's political dissidents.
The richest and most poignant parts of Ehrlich's story are those peopled by the cowboys, bartenders, telephone operators, waitresses and others who live in and around the fictional town of Luster, the closest town to Heart Mountain. She shows, with a fine touch, all the loneliness, courage and humor of rural people.
The Japanese-American characters are not given the same depth, although Ehrlich obviously has great feeling for their plight.
Still, 'Heart Mountain' should help cement Ehrlich's reputation as wonderfully poetic and sympathetic voice of the rural West.