Tallgrass is a historical thriller set against the backdrop of World War II and the incarceration of Japanese Americans in internment camps during the war.
In the late summer of 1942, the Japanese came to the town of Ellis, Colorado, to the old Tallgrass Ranch, a mile and a half from town. Thirteen year old Rennie Stroud, like many of the locals, went to the Ellis train depot to see the arrival of the first Japanese to be detained at Tallgrass, now a detention camp. People of Japanese ancestry from all over California were being rounded up and incarcerated in camps like Tallgrass and the townsfolk were not very happy about this. While some like Lum Smith "don't see nothing wrong with them", others like Mr. Rubey were convinced they are dangerous. But Rennie "expected them to look like the cartoons of Hirohito in the newspaper...was disappointed that they didn't appear to be a 'yellow peril' at all. They were so ordinary."
Rennie's father, Loyal Stroud arrived at the depot, disappointed that she had come to see "the Japs". He reminded her and the other townsfolk there to gawk, that these people are "unlucky Americans". When's Rennie's father was approached by a reporter to comment on the "Japs" coming to Tallgrass, he declined, even though his friend Redhead Joe Lee who runs one of the drugstores in Ellis told him he should speak out so people will know some don't hate the Japanese.
Rennie and her parents live with her mother's mother, Granny on a sugar beet farm less than a mile from Ellis. Her older brother Buddy had been attending Colorado A and M in Fort Collins before he enlisted while her older sister Marthalice recently moved to Denver to work in an arms plant after graduating high school.Rennie's best friend is Betty Joyce Snow, whose parents run the hardware store.
When the government bought the old Tallgrass Ranch, the people of Ellis didn't think much about whether or not it was right or wrong to detain those of Japanese ancestry, many born in America and therefore citizens. Tallgrass was going to help the town of Ellis by providing jobs and customers to local businesses. But as the construction workers were drafted into the war, the partially constructed camp was left for the evacuees to finish building the barracks and the feelings about Tallgrass changed. Rennie's father was sad and troubled by what he saw when he visited Tallgrass; he finds the barracks are crowded, dusty and hot, the camp surrounded by bobwire and watchtowers manned by US troops. There is no hospital, no library and not much of a school.
But people in Ellis were not happy; Mr. Elliot who ran the other drugstore in town, put a sign in his store window mocking the Japanese saying "No Japs Served." Shortly afterwards the Elliot drugstore was robbed and later on the train trestle was set afire. Many townsfolk blamed the Japanese at Tallgrass.
To quell dissent and rumours, the government decided to hold a meeting about the camp. Mr. Halleck who ran the camp explained to the town about the security guards with rifles, but people complained about everything including the fact that the Tallgrass school has a science lab and that the food is better. With Buddy at army camp, Rennie and her family struggled to harvest their sugar beet crop. This leads Loyal Stroud to ask if he can hire the Japanese from Tallgrass to harvest his sugar beets. Mr. Gardner, another farmer, also wants to hire Japanese men for the harvest. But their efforts were thwarted by the prejudice of the Ellis townsfolk who considered Stroud's request "un-American". Mr. Spano, whose son Danny had been released by the US Army after injuring his foot, wanted to know who will protect the women if the Japanese men go to work on the farms. In the end, the sugar beet harvest in 1942 was taken in by Mexican workers.
By the fall of 1942, the war in Europe and the Pacific was going poorly. This led to shortages of gasoline, farm equipment, clothing and food, although Rennie's family was luckier than most because they could grow their own food. Rennie's mom went to visit Marthalice in Denver for two weeks because she wasn't feeling well and when she was better Marthalice moved out of Cousin Hazel's home and into her own room in an old mansion.
Over Christmas, Buddy arrived home on leave. During his time home, Buddy and Rennie experienced first hand the prejudice towards the Japanese by the people of Ellis. At the Lee Drugstore they met three young Japanese boys who sneaked out of Tallgrass. Buddy was kind towards the boys, but in doing so was mocked by Jack Beaner and his friend Pete. They learn later from Sheriff Watrous, that the Japanese boys were attacked by three men on their way back to the camp without the youngest being injured by a rock which was thrown by three men. Rennie is certain it was Beaner, Danny and Pete. Dad tells them that there have been many rock-throwing incidents. Dad and Buddy disagree on the whether the Japanese are truly American or still loyal to Japan. When Dad questions his son about whether or not he's concerned that the Japanese Americans have had their rights taken away, Buddy says "No, sire. They're not the only ones. Besides, their rights are only being suspended. Our boys who've been killed, now their rights are gone for good."
Then one night a huge snowstorm hits Ellis, the wind howling and pushing the snow through the slats in the house.The next morning, Sheriff Watrous stopped at the Stroud farm with devastating news: young Susan Reddick who had been slightly crippled after contracting polio was raped and murdered and left dead in a haystack outside the barn. Horrified at the brutal crime, Rennie's parents and the Sheriff consider possible suspects including local troublemaker, Beaner Jack and possibly the Japanese from Tallgrass. After a visit to Tallgrass Loyal and the Sheriff feel that the Japanese are not involved in the murder of little Susan.
When Rennie and her parents visited the Reddick's to comfort them, Rennie noticed details about Susan's bedroom. She questions Sheriff Watrous as to why Susan would have left the house during a blizzard instead of using her chamber pot. This convinced Sheriff Watrous that someone entered the Reddick farmhouse and then killed Susan.
After the funeral and into February of 1943, Loyal Stroud hired three Japanese boys, Carl Tanaka, Emory Kuruma and Harry Hirano to help with the sugar beet planting. The boys are polite and hard workers and became like family to the Strouds. Soon after, Mr. Gardner also hired a Japanese crew. But all of this merely made some in Ellis downright mean. The Strouds were ostracized; one of the quilters refused to meet at the Strouds, manure was put into the bed of their truck, a dead cat was hung on their farm gate and Rennie was bullied at school.
With the murder of Susan Reddick unsolved, the hatred towards the Japanese grows leading to more trouble and culminating in a deadly confrontation at the Stroud farm that uncovers a terrible family secret.
Discussion (some spoilers)
Tallgrass is a murder mystery set in the American Midwest during the Second World War. It touches on many themes including the nature of prejudice, identity, betrayal, forgiveness and family secrets, of which there are plenty in this novel. Although I enjoyed the beginning chapters of Tallgrass, the story of a community struggling to cope with the location of a Japanese internment camp on its doorstep is lost in the overwhelming drama that follows. This drama culminates in the terrible murder at the Stroud's farm and the shocking revelations that come to light. Up until and including the murder of Susan Reddick, the story was realistic and believable. After this point, Dallas simply heaps on the drama, the rape of Daisy which is not revealed until the end of the novel but which readers will quickly surmise, the drama surrounding Betty Joyce and her morphine addicted father, Buddy missing in action in Europe, the death of Harry Hirano, and the health problems of Rennie Stroud's mother. Tallgrass is a novel that tries to do too much. The murder of Susan Reddick and how this affected the small community of Ellis in relation to the internment camp would have provided more than enough themes to explore. Instead the Sheriff seems completely lost when investigating the murder of Susan and is helped more than once by thirteen year old Rennie Stroud who seems to have more sense than the entire town of Ellis combined.
Despite this, Dallas has crafted several outstanding characters in Loyal Stroud and his daughter Rennie as well as Mary Stroud. Reminiscent of Atticus Finch and his daughter Scout in To Kill A Mockingbird, Loyal is the honorable, tolerant man who stands up to the bigots in the town of Ellis, providing a fine example of charity towards others to his younger daughter whom he affectionately calls "Squirt".
Tallgrass is a coming of age story, in which Rennie starts the story as an innocent young girl who quickly comes to learn that life can be complicated. She learns first hand about hatred and prejudice just by watching how the people from Ellis react towards the Japanese who are so different from them. From the beginning Rennie is able to put herself in the place of the evacuees at Tallgrass, wondering how she would feel if she were forced to move to a camp.
"...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"
Despite this, Rennie realizes that "...the people at Tallgrass were different from us, and they still scared me."
By the end of the novel Rennie is a fourteen year old girl who has witnessed a murder, had two of her best friends raped, learned of young men who were killed in the war and is trying to cope with a sick mother and a brother in a German POW camp. She learns that life is filled with betrayal, lies and the keeping of secrets. Her mother tells her about her sister's baby but Rennie is not allowed to speak about it.
Dallas excels at creating detailed settings, providing her readers with a true sense of prairie life during the war and the attitudes that prevailed at the time about who was a true, loyal American. Small town America's attitudes towards outsiders of any kind and those who didn't agree with them are also accurately portrayed.
Overall this was an exciting novel with plenty of drama and rich in detail about the rural town life in America. Readers won't learn much about World War II nor even about the Japanese internment, but they will learn how American's felt about their fellow Japanese citizens and how they were viewed as a security risk during the war.
Tallgrass by Sandra Dallas
New York: St. Martin's Press 2007