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Tallgrass

Tallgrass

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by Sandra Dallas
     
 

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An essential American novel from Sandra Dallas, an unparalleled writer of our history, and our deepest emotions...

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 (and suspicions) turn to the newcomers, the interlopers, the

Overview

An essential American novel from Sandra Dallas, an unparalleled writer of our history, and our deepest emotions...

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 (and suspicions) turn to the newcomers, the interlopers, the strangers.
This is Tallgrass as Rennie Stroud has never seen it before. She has just turned thirteen and, until this time, life has pretty much been what her father told her it should be: predictable and fair. But now the winds of change are coming and, with them, a shift in her perspective. And Rennie will discover 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.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

An ugly murder is central to this compelling historical, but the focus is on one appealing family, the Strouds, in the backwater town of Ellis, Colo. Soon after Pearl Harbor, the U.S. government rounded up all the Japanese residents of the West Coast and shipped them off to "internment camps" for the duration of the war. One of the camps is Tallgrass, based on an actual Colorado camp, as Dallas (The Chili Queen) explains in her acknowledgments. The major discomforts and petty indignities these (mostly) American citizens had to endure are viewed through the clear eyes of a young girl who lives on a nearby farm, Rennie Stroud. Rennie's obvious love of family slowly extends itself to the Japanese house and field helpers the Strouds receive permission to hire. The final surprise is the who and why of the murder itself. Dallas's terrific characters, unerring ear for regional dialects and ability to evoke the sights and sounds of the 1940s make this a special treat. Author tour. (Apr.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Library Journal
Rennie Stroud looks back to 1942, when she was 13, to tell a powerful coming-of-age story. That year, the U.S. government opened a Japanese internment camp outside Ellis, CO, less than a mile from where Rennie and her family farmed sugar beets. Rennie observes the prejudice of some of the townspeople as well as her parents' strong moral code and their entanglement in the emotions of the time. Her father, Loyal, not only shows open support for the Japanese, whom he views as Americans, but offers to hire them to work on the farm. When a young girl is murdered, suspicion naturally turns to the camp, and the town is divided by fear. Dallas's strong, provocative novel is a moving examination of prejudice and fear that addresses issues of community discord, abuse, and rape. Her phrasing and language bring the 1940s to life, and she has created characters that will linger with the reader. As in her previous work, The Persian Pickle Club, Dallas emphasizes the need for women to form strong networks in order to survive emotionally. Highly recommended for book clubs and public libraries.
—Lesa M. Holstine
School Library Journal

Adult/High School -Dallas has made a major contribution to a growing body of literature about the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. Based on the one camp in Colorado (named Amache, and renamed Tallgrass by the author), the story focuses on the impact it had on the local farmers and townspeople. It is told from the viewpoint of Rennie Stroud, 13, and poignantly portrays the emotional turmoil of both the internees and local residents. Suspicion, fear, anger, hatred, love, tenderness, pride, regret: Rennie adapts and readapts to all of these as her predictable life vanishes behind the reality of war, murder, and injustice. After a young local girl is killed, most of the town looks in one direction for the murderer. Rennie, blessed with wise and just parents, manages to rise above the prevailing rush to judgment. Part mystery, part historical fiction, part coming-of-age story, Tallgrass has all the elements of a tale well told: complex characters, intriguing plot, atmospheric detail, pathos, humor, and memorable turns of phrase. But most of all, the book offers a fresh look at a theme that can never be ignored: the interplay of good and evil within society and within people.-Robert Saunderson, Berkeley Public Library, CA

Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A Colorado beet farmer and his family are sorely tried by events of WWII. When the U.S. government establishes a Japanese-American relocation camp in Ellis, Colo., in 1942, Loyal Stroud takes a view apart from most other townsfolk. Having "the enemy in their midst" riles the locals, but Loyal believes the whole thing is plain wrong. Why not round up all the German-Americans, too, while they're at it? Aside from civic issues, Loyal has to figure out how to harvest his beets, what with Buddy, his son, enlisted, along with his farm hands. Against prevailing sentiment, Loyal hires three young men from the camp. And although Rennie, 14, the last child home, worries about her father's decision, she and her mother, Mary, come to love the boys, who are from California farm country. And when Mary's heart ailment finally gets bad enough for her to take the rest cure the doctor advised, the Strouds hire Daisy, the sister of one of the boys. Daisy works hard and speaks in a Hollywood tabloid lingo that charms the whole family. Their domestic harmony is rocked by news that Buddy is missing in action and-shockingly-that Rennie's school friend Sally is found raped and murdered. Everyone except the Strouds and the sheriff believes "the Japs" did it, and the tension in town builds to the point of near-anarchy, when the local bigots get liquored up and try to take the law into their own hands. Throughout all this drama, as in most of Dallas's work (Alice's Tulips, 2000, etc.), a community of quilters, known here as the Jolly Stitchers, come and go, bringing cakes, covered casseroles and gossip to the sick and grieving. The parallels of a country at war then and now give this story a layer of poignancy, butotherwise, as is obvious from the start, the good guys win and the bad guys lose, and Buddy comes marching home. A well-spun but familiar tale.
From the Publisher

Tallgrass will undoubtedly draw apt comparisons with such novels as To Kill a Mockingbird and Snow Falling on Cedars. Sandra Dallas has penned a poignant novel that is not just about a young woman's coming of age, but also about the battle of reasonable people against unreasoned fear and prejudice. A powerful story whose strength is firmly rooted in its respect for language, its depth of character, and its marvelous evocation of place and time, Tallgrass has all the elements of an American classic.” —William Kent Krueger, author of the prize-winning Corcoran O'Connor mystery series

“Sandra Dallas is a true American Voice. She writes of small towns within a big landscape. And Tallgrass speaks to a time in our history when prejudice and fear fueled passions that divided family and friends. And yet, always, Dallas writes of the human spirit that soars above it all.” —Gail Tsukiyama, author of Dreaming Water

“Deftly capturing regional voice as well as period detail, Sandra Dallas weaves a vivid portrait of a Colorado farm town unsettled by change and divided by mistrust on the World War II home front. Tallgrass is a compelling and genuinely moving novel that will keep readers guessing until the last page.” —Jennifer Chiaverini, author of Circle of Quilters

Tallgrass is a must-read for every American. . . . Sandra Dallas captures the feelings of people in eastern Colorado, a part of the great American plains. Residents thought they were isolated from the great global conflict, but the winds of change deposited one of the internment camps in their midst. What a setting for a novel!” —former congresswoman Pat Schroeder, president and chief executive officer of the Association of American Publishers (AAP)

“A profoundly moving story, told from the viewpoints of victims and witnesses, that hits the reader with insights into the human side of a barely remembered national tragedy of World War II.” —Bill Hosokawa, author of Nisei

“A rich and unforgettable story . . . With astonishing deftness, Sandra Dallas evokes a part of our history that we might wish to forget, and she does it in such a way that we understand why it is important to remember.” —Margaret Coel, author of The Drowning Man

“Even the barbed wire can't contain the characters in this novel. They escaped from the story to live in my mind long after I put down the book. With their hopes and dreams and dilemmas, they seem made of flesh and blood.” —Iain Lawrence, author of The Wreckers

“A moving tale of maturation . . . Fear and prejudice threatens a small Colorado town in World War II, but goodness and mercy abound in a young heroine every bit as appealing as To Kill a Mockingbird's Scout.” —Angela Hunt, author of Magdalene and The Elevator

Tallgrass is a coming-of-age novel in that classic tradition, and perhaps the author's most stellar achievement in this book is her creation of young Rennie Stroud, the novel's memorable young narrator, a frank and watchful girl burdened by her own kind heart.” —Michael Raleigh, author of In the Castle of the Flynns

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781429917179
Publisher:
St. Martin's Press
Publication date:
04/03/2007
Sold by:
Macmillan
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
320
Sales rank:
74,100
File size:
280 KB

Read an Excerpt

Tallgrass


By Sandra Dallas

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2007 Sandra Dallas
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-1717-9


CHAPTER 1

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 farmhouse. 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 racetrack. 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 bobwire. Then they were put on a train and sent a thousand miles to Ellis.

I remember 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, I recall I was 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, which meant 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."

"Yes, sir."

"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 bandannas 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 I hoped 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 in my 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.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from Tallgrass by Sandra Dallas. Copyright © 2007 Sandra Dallas. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Award-winning author Sandra Dallas was dubbed "a quintessential American voice" by Jane Smiley, in Vogue Magazine. She is the author of The Bride's House, Whiter Than Snow, and Prayers for Sale, among others. Her novels have been translated into a dozen languages and optioned for films. She is the recipient of the Women Writing the West Willa Award and the two-time winner of the Western Writers of America Spur Award. For 25 years, Dallas worked as a reporter covering the Rocky Mountain region for Business Week, and started writing fiction in 1990. She lives with her husband in Denver, Colorado.


Award-winning author Sandra Dallas was dubbed “a quintessential American voice” by Jane Smiley, in Vogue Magazine. She is the author of The Bride’s House, Whiter Than Snow, Prayers for Sale and Tallgrass, among others. Her novels have been translated into a dozen languages and optioned for films. She is the recipient of the Women Writing the West Willa Award and the two-time winner of the Western Writers of America Spur Award. For 25 years, Dallas worked as a reporter covering the Rocky Mountain region for Business Week, and started writing fiction in 1990. She lives with her husband in Denver, Colorado.

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