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Echoes of History in Heart Mountain: Heart Mountain, Gretel Ehrlich's 1988 historical novel, takes place in Wyoming during World War II. As in The Solace of Open Spaces, Ehrlich's collection of essays about herding sheep and being human in Wyoming, the windswept and unforgiving landscape plays a key role in holding the story together. Heart Mountain itself looms large—and gives its name to the nearby internment camp, where more than 10,000 people of Japanese descent were held between 1942 and 1945. The book centers on the ranchers and barflies of Luster, a fictional small town next to the non-fictional camp, and how their lives become entwined with the people of Japanese descent who are confined to the camp.
In a recent opinion piece in the New York Times, Michiko Kakutani draws a parallel between the removal of people of Japanese descent from their homes and President Donald Trump's current immigration policy, saying that they're based on the "same sort of political calculus of fear and bigotry." For Kakutani, this history is personal; her mother's family was incarcerated at an internment camp in the Utah desert.
But what's personal for Kakutani might feel like far-off history to some, and Heart Mountain is worth reading for the way it gives color and texture to a horrific violation of constitutional and human rights. The book came out the same year that the Civil Liberties Act granted reparations to Japanese Americans who had been interned. That was only 30 years ago. It might be helpful, then, to consider how slowly history moves, how rashly a government can act and how slow it can be to realize its mistakes, and how much closer we are to this history than we'd like to imagine.