This isn't my first Sandra Dallas book. I liked Alice's Tulips, The Diary of Mattie Spencer, and New Mercies well enough; all three were light reads, somewhat formulaic but enjoyable as "in between" reads.
But I found Tallgrass to be a step above Dallas's usual writing. For one, I love the subject matter. Or maybe I don't love the subject matter, but I am always mystified as to why this subject is so little discussed in the history of the U.S. The Tallgrass of the novel is the fictional name (but based on a real Colorado camp) of a Japanese-American internment camp during World War II. I've always found this to be a fascinating part of our recent history, and yet I don't think I was really aware of it until graduate school, when I took a class in minority literature. Toshio Mori's Yokohama, California, a collection of short stories that portray a Japanese American community right before WWII, and Mine Okubo's Citizen 13360, a graphic novel depicting Okubo's life as a teenage college student in an internment camp, just blew me away. I had heard of the internment camps, and my father had a couple of Japanese-American colleagues who had lived in internment camps, but these things were only whispered about, said in a cautionary sort of way.
Tallgrass, unlike the abovementioned titles, is told from the perspective of a 13-year-old girl who, like everyone else in the world, watches her safe world change rapidly with World War II. The people of her tiny rural town are in further upheaval when an internment camp is built at the edge of town and thousands of Japanese Americans are brought to live there. Rennie Stroud's father welcomes the Japanese, much to the dismay of the townspeople, but Rennie isn't so sure she is comfortable with "the enemy" being housed at the edge of their farm. When a local girl is murdered, the town is convinced that one of the prisoners is responsible.
This book is part historical fiction and part coming-of-age. Rennie is a likeable character, and I love the relationship she has with her family. Dallas's characters are for the most part well-developed, although I didn't get quite enough of a feel for the internment camp itself. I'm not sure I could have visualized it very well had I not read other books on the subject. But besides that, I really loved this book.
I was amazed to get When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka in the mail last week, as well. I'd read Natasha's review of this at Maw Books and had forgotten that I'd ordered a copy from Paperback Swap. I'm looking forward to reading it next. Other books I've read years ago related to this topic: The Magic of Ordinary Days by Ann Creel, which I absolutely loved, and the more well-known Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson. Both of these were turned into movies in which I recall being quite disappointed.
If you don't know anything about this period in American history, these six books are a great place to start. You might even want to take this a step further and read a different perspective on American history than what you probably learned in school. Ronald Takaki's A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America, traces the economic and political history of various racial and ethnic groups in America—Chinese, Indians, African Americans, Mexicans, Japanese, Irish, and Jewish people. I found this text to be enlightening and valuable in providing a more rounded view of American history.
Other Review of Tallgrass:
Lesa at Lesa's Book Critiques
Lynne's Little Corner of the World
(If you've reviewed this book, please leave a comment and I'll link to you!)