Over the last several days while down with a flu bug I gobbled up Gretel Ehrlich’s Heart Mountain, one of the best little-known novels in the Western literature. Published in 1989, Heart Mountain is about the Japanese internment camp of the same name not far from the Montana border in northern Wyoming. The novel is about the camp and so much more: the effect of World War II on the residents of that remote part of the country, the hardship endured by the displaced people of the camp, the desolate but beautiful land in all seasons.
My copy of Heart Mountain is inscribed by my former husband, who gave me the book and didn’t write in it until after we’d separated. He did so at my request, as he’s the person who introduced me to the work of Gretel Ehrlich. Not all fences are made of wood and wire, he wrote. Often the fences we cannot see are the greatest barriers. At the time, my heart broke to read those words. I did recognize even as I cried over it how wise the inscription was. Now I see its application not only to the divide between him and me but also to the story in Heart Mountain.
So much more stands between the people of Wyoming and the prisoners of the Heart Mountain camp than barbed wire and guard surveillance. There are barriers of all kinds: language, culture, racism, philosophy, orientation, inertia. The beautiful point of the book is that some individuals on both sides of the wire, through perseverance, are able to connect.
All suffer loss and hardship, whether they were from the coasts or the tiny Wyoming town where five of the seven men inducted are killed in the Wars in Europe and the Pacific. Working from true accounts, Ehrlich gives her characters real stories to live through. Many who seem unlikely to be affected are not immune in the end.
When the Japanese prisoners are released from Heart Mountain camp in 1945, whether or not they have homes to return to, some linger long enough to climb the mountain they’ve seen through the wire since 1942. An octogenarian Noh mask carver and a twenty-something displaced UC Berkeley grad student who has become his apprentice tackle the slopes, knowing them for the first time. From the journal entry of the student:
I sidled along the rock face, touching it with my hands. It was smooth and cold. I came on a place where snow had lodged itself in a crevice and a tiny pine grew there. Halfway across I figured I was next to the center of the mountain and put my ear to the rock. Abe-san’s laughter spilled out of the cave above. I continued on. Then I did hear something. Looking down, I saw water oozing out of broken rock.
“What do you see?” a voice said in back of my head. Abe-san had climbed down and was behind me.
“Look.” I pointed to the water. “I wonder where it comes from.”
Abe-san laughed. I couldn’t tell if he was laughing at my naivete or laughing with delight. I counted the lines that radiated from his eyes–crow’s feet–there were four on each side.
“Everything comes from emptiness,” he said.
I groaned. “Then why doesn’t this mountain fall over if it’s empty inside?”
“Oh . . . it will . . . ,” he said, smiling.
I love this reminder that even a landmark as big as a mountain will someday be gone. The power of the earth to reclaim what it’s built is larger even than the highest mountain. Same thing must happen to barriers. Noh master Abe-san would’ve known that even during his imprisonment. The barriers described in my book’s inscription may not have fallen over, but I’ve made my peace with them.
Heart Mountain joins the list of novels that lovers of the West must read and read again. It’s a book I’ll always have on my shelf, not far from A River Runs through It (Norman Maclean), The River Why (David James Duncan), The Bean Trees and Animal Dreams (Barbara Kingsolver), Cold Mountain (Charles Frazier), and The Solace of Open Spaces (also by Gretel Ehrlich).