Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The home front

I repeat myself here (probably more often than I realize), but I do enjoy historical fiction. It affords me a brief, (hopefully) reliable introduction to a time period or event that I could explore in greater detail if I wished. While Tallgrass was not my first introduction to the horrors of Japanese-American internment during World War II, I appreciated the perspective of the small Colorado town on this regrettable episode in U.S. history. Not only does Sandra Dallas give us that glimpse, but she also tells a thoughtful coming-of-age story.

Rennie Stroud is 13 years old when the Tallgrass Internment Camp opens up next door to her family's sugar-beet farm in rural Ellis, Colorado. (Tallgrass is the fictional name of the Amache Internment Camp.) Rennie's family is one of the few in Ellis who believe that the Japanese-Americans interned there are not enemies, but the Strouds are respected enough in the community that their opposition is listened to, if not believed. Rennie's father eventually hires several young men from the camp to help him on the farm; and her mother -- with a heart condition -- also hires help inside the house. The community remains tense about the presence of the Japanese, particularly once a young girl is raped and murdered, and the crime is not quickly solved.

Aside from that crime (and another rape that we find out about after the fact), nothing much really happens in this novel. The seasons pass, the war drags on, the quilting ladies gather and gossip, the men harvest, and Rennie -- the observer -- grows up. Tallgrass nicely evokes a small-town, slow-paced time where a community comes to terms with the violence and racism in its midst. I liked it.

I loved the narrator, Lorelei King; she was outstanding. Rennie is telling us this story as an adult, and King brilliantly delivers the narration as the adult, but the dialogue is read with more childlike tones. She transitioned from one to the other effortlessly. There was a cast of (at least) dozens in this story, and King created unique and consistent characters for each and every one of them. By the time the novel was over, I knew many of them by voice. The novel's male characters were natural-sounding, and on the few occasions when she was portraying a Japanese character with accented English (there weren't many ... as the point of the novel is that the internees were Americans), it sounded authentic to me. I thought it was a masterful performance (and so did AudioFile).

King interviews Sandra Dallas at the end of the audiobook, and I particularly enjoyed her perspective on the book and her perceptive questions about it. Aside from the author, an audiobook narrator is likely the only other person with as close an acquaintance with a novel. As part of the interview King recollects her own feelings at reading this book; at one point, she even mentions crying while she was recording.

If I have a concern about the audiobook it is the leisurely pace of the story. There's very little action, and when the resolution comes (the discovery of the murderer) it has been a long time since the crime. It would even have been possible to forget that it had happened. The final turns of the plot are a wee bit melodramatic, as well. Still, neither quality detracts from the fine performance by King.

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