Title: Heart Mountain
Author: Gretel Ehrlich
Publisher: ebook: Open Road Media, 2017, 382 pages. Original hardback Viking, 1988.
Source: Free review copy from the publisher
This is the story of Kai, a graduate student reunited with his old-fashioned parents in the most painful way possible; Mariko, a gifted artist; Mariko’s husband, a political dissident; and her aging grandfather, a Noh mask carver from Kyoto. It is also the story of McKay, who runs his family farm outside the nearby town; Pinkey, an alcoholic cowboy; and Madeleine, whose soldier husband is missing in the Pacific. Most of all, Heart Mountain is about what happens when these two groups collide. Politics, loyalty, history, love—soon the bedrocks of society will seem as transient and fleeting as life itself.
Set at the real-life Heart Mountain Relocation Center in Wyoming, this powerful novel paints “a sweeping, yet finely shaded portrait of a real West unfolding in historical time” (The Christian Science Monitor).
I was offered this chance to review the re-issue (as an ebook) of what I believe was Gretel Ehrlich's first novel because I have reviewed many of the works of Ivan Doig, and I accepted it because of that connection, the historical and physical setting of the book, and the fact that I am aware of Gretel Ehrlich as a respected writer. I certainly wasn't sorry.
The story tackles a lot, wrangling the parallel stories of at least 6 people into something that works pretty well as a portrait of a community (or more accurately communities) in a time of struggle. Objectively, I think it probably would be a stronger book if it had tracked at least one less person, but all the threads do contribute to a strong whole.
It is impossible for me not to draw some comparisons with Ivan Doig, who wrote about a similar area. Ehrlich shares his ability to draw an evocative picture of a time and place, and her characters are well drawn, with a depth and complexity that makes them worth the writing. I did feel while reading that the book lacked something that I expect when I read Doig's works, and I think that I will call it warmth. This is a grim story in so many ways, and rightly so--it was a grim time, and the deportation of Japanese Americans to concentration camps in the interior was ugly. Even so, I think I would have enjoyed the book more had there been that warmth, that touch of humor, that allows a story to tell of grim events without weighing the reader down.
But several days after finishing the book, I am still contemplating some aspects of it, and seeing value in aspects of it that on first reading I thought gratuitous. Some parts that at first feel like they are intrusions by minor characters help to add depth and complexity to our understanding of the nation's treatment of the Japanese Americans (not justification, because some things cannot be justified, but we can at least understand the causes. Perhaps that understanding can help prevent similar mistakes from being made in the future). And that is proof to me that this is a good novel, and one that deserves reading, and possibly re-reading.
Read it. If you have any interest in American history, WWII, or how racism informs our actions, read it. And if you want to know what a Wyoming winter feels like, or a summer...read it. It's not a light book, but it does cast a good light.
FTC Disclosure: I was given a free ebook for review, and received nothing further from the writer or publisher for my honest review. The opinions expressed are my own and those of no one else. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."