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Heart Mountain (book)

Creators: Gretel Ehrlich

Book cover. Courtesy of Viking
View in the Densho Encyclopedia

Novel by acclaimed essayist and nature/travel writer Gretel Ehrlich. Set inside and outside of the Heart Mountain , Wyoming, concentration camp, Heart Mountain was published by Viking in 1988.


The novel's protagonist is McKay Allison, a 24 year-old rancher who lives in the shadow of the Heart Mountain concentration camp. As the novel begins just prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor both of his brothers are in the armed forces serving in the Pacific, leaving McKay—who is ineligible for service due to a horse accident that has left him with one leg shorter than the other—in charge of the family's ranch. McKay is assisted at the ranch by longtime family cook Bobby Korematsu, an Issei who has been with the family for seventeen years, and Pinkey Coleman, a perpetually drunk but kindly cowboy. His neighbor and close friend, Henry Heaney, has also been inducted, and McKay and Madeleine—Henry's wife and McKay's childhood sweetheart—combine their ranching operations during the war as sparks between them inevitably fly again. In a parallel story, Kai Nakamura, also 24 and a Ph.D. candidate in history at the University of California Berkeley, arrives at the Heart Mountain camp with his parents. He befriends his next door neighbors—Will Okubo, a Kibei who had lived in France; Mariko Abe, Will's wife and a talented artist: and Mariko's grandfather Abe. There is also a third set of characters in the fictional town of Luster, the closest town to the camp. When McKay accidentally shoots Mr. Abe when the latter was birdwatching, the local and inmate communities intersect as McKay and Mariko fall in love at first sight. As the war drags on, McKay and Mariko pursue their affair as various characters comes in and out of their parallel communities.

Most of what we learn about Heart Mountain comes through excerpts from Kai's journal. Though angered by his treatment, he initially delves into community life, becoming a staff member on the Heart Mountain Sentinel and helping to build furniture for his barracks. But Mr. Abe's shooting followed by the loyalty questionnaire episode—along with dissident stances taken by Will and another friend, Ben Iwasaka, a law student at Berkeley—fuel Kai's discontent, and he ends up as a leader of the Heart Mountain Fair Play Committee advocating draft resistance . While in camp, he learns that he has an older brother. But his elation of this revelation turns to bitterness when the brother—whose back story is based on famed Nisei tail gunner Ben Kuroki —clashes with him over the meaning of loyalty and resistance. All the while, Kai also develops a growing attraction for Mariko.

Author and Book Background

Author Gretel Ehrlich (1946– ), an essayist known for her writings on nature, the West and travel, was born in Santa Barbara, California and grew up in nearby Montecito. After stints at Bennington College in Vermont and at UCLA, she became a documentary filmmaker. In 1976, she made a documentary film on sheepherders in Wyoming; after a personal tragedy, she decided to stay on there, learning herding and the ins and outs of working on a ranch. She eventually married a local and settled on a ranch in Shell, Wyoming. After publishing two earlier volumes of poetry, her book of essays titled The Solace of Open Spaces (1985) based on her life in Wyoming brought her much acclaim.

As a child, Ehrlich had had Japanese American friends born in the concentration camps. As she told interviewer James Wackett, "I couldn't imagine why anyone could be frightened of a person with an Asian face; it's such an ordinary thing for me." Given that she could see Heart Mountain from her ranch, "it just suddenly made sense, that here I could write about one of the loves of my life, which is things Japanese and Japanese-American, and something I know about, in a Western setting," she told Wackett. "I was really interested in writing about issues of racism, war, and peace. It's a pretty natural evolution for me." [1]

Earlier versions of several chapters of Heart Mountain were written in the winter and spring of 1985 and appear in her 1986 collection of short stories, Wyoming Stories . [2] Pinky, one of the major characters in the novel, is actually introduced in her earlier collection of poems, To Touch the Water (1981). After the publication of Heart Mountain in 1988, she continued the stories of several of its characters in her 1991 collection Drinking Dry Clouds: Stories from Wyoming . [3] In subsequent years, Ehrlich has written books on Yellowstone, a biography of John Muir, on her travels in China and Greenland, and a memoir based on her being struck by lighting while living at the ranch, among other topics. Heart Mountain remains her only novel for adults to date. [4]


Heart Mountain appeared in the fall of 1988, shortly after the passage of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988. No doubt due in part to this fortuitous timing, it was widely reviewed, with the reception being mixed. Writing in the New York Times , poet Garrett Hongo called it "... a richly textured and grandly romantic work about individual alienation and sexual loneliness, a novel full of immense poetic feeling for the internal lives of its varied characters and the sublime high plains landscape that is its backdrop." [5] Merle Rubin in the Christian Science Monitor wrotes that "[b]y focusing on the links between nature and the individual and on the complicated connections between the individual and the forces of history, Ehrlich has achieved a sweeping, yet finely shaded portrait of a real West unfolding in historical time." [6] Kirkus Reviews also praised its incorporation of nature and the seasons, while Publishers Weekly and Dean Willms in Library Journal cited Ehrlich's knowledgeable portrayals of life on a Wyoming ranch. [7]

The novel's many characters proved to be a point of contention. Some reviewers cited this as a strength. In the Chicago Tribune , Charles R. Larson cites "25 memorable characters in the novel, of which nearly a dozen are major," calling them a "a panorama of believable characters." [8] Kathy Roe calls them "a motley, vivid crew imbued with the power only a good writer can give." [9] On the other hand, David Kishiyama in the Los Angeles Times writes that "[t]oo many minor characters occupy the spotlight far too long," while Publishers Weekly notes that "her characters are often only wafer-thin." [10] While praising her "fine touch" in showing "all the loneliness, courage and humor of rural people," UPI notes that "Japanese-American characters are not given the same depth." [11] Other reviewers make this point, with Roe finding fault with the portrayal of the Nakamura family and Kishiyama and Hongo both taking issue with elements of the central love story. In perhaps the most serious criticism of the book, Hongo cites the "sorely inadequate" portrayals of the two main Nisei male characters and writes that the novel "approaches its Japanese characters, for all its earnest sympathies, as still the exotic Other." Kishiyama finds some plot elements far fetched, Will Nixon knocks the shallow depiction of white racism of the time, and psychologist Donna Nakata, while praising the depth of the research, laments the lack of historical background that would allow readers to place the events in the novel into proper context. [12]

In the early 1990s, producer Patrick Markey along with actor and director Robert Redford began developing Heart Mountain as a feature film, with Ehrlich writing the screenplay. The project has not come to fruition to date. [13]

Authored by Brian Niiya , Densho

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  1. James Wackett, "An Interview with Gretel Ehrlich," North Dakota Quarterly 58.3 (1990): 121–27; quote from page 127.
  2. The story "Pinky" corresponds to chapter 2 of the novel; "Kai and Bobby" to chapters 3 and 4; "McKay" to chapter 6; and "Thursdays at Snuff's" to chapter 7.
  3. In addition to the same four stories that appeared in Wyoming Stories , this collection includes ten short vignettes, each told from the perspective of a different character. Of the ten, only one centers on a Heart Mountain inmate: "Kai's Mother," about her train ride back to California with her mentally ill husband after the closing of the camp.
  4. Biographical information from Marie Bongiovanni, "Gretel Ehrlich (21 January 1946-)," Twentieth-Century American Nature Writers: Prose , ed. Roger Thompson and J. Scott Bryson, vol. 275 (Detroit: Gale, 2003): 121–28; "Gretel Ehrlich," Contemporary Authors Online (Detroit: Gale, 2014); and Wackett, "An Interview with Gretel Ehrlich."
  5. Garrett Hongo, "Love Beyond the Fences," New York Times , Nov. 6, 1988, accessed on Feb. 8, 2016 at .
  6. Merle Rubin, "Wartime Lives Out of Balance," Christian Science Monitor , Nov. 18, 1988, 22, accessed on Feb. 8, 2016 at .
  7. / Kirkus Reviews , Oct. 1, 1988, ; Publishers Weekly , Aug. 12, 1988, 440, ; Dean Willms, Library Journal , Oct. 1, 1988, 100, all accessed on Feb. 8, 2016.
  8. Charles R. Larson, "'Heart Mountain' a Strong, True First Novel of the Fusion and Clash of Cultures," Chicago Tribune , Nov. 6, 1988, accessed on Feb. 8, 2016 at .
  9. Kathy Roe, "Distant War Casts a Shadow over Heart Mountain," Orlando Sentinel , Jan. 22, 1989, accessed on Feb. 8, 2016 at .
  10. David Kishiyama, "A Relocation of the Heart," Los Angeles Times , Oct. 30, 1988, ; Publishers Weekly , Aug. 12, 1988, 440, both accessed on Feb. 8, 2016.
  11. UPI, Nov. 4, 1988, accessed on Feb. 9, 2016 at .
  12. Kishiyama, "A Relocation of the Heart"; Will Nixon, "Mountain Ramble," Village Voice , Jan. 24, 1989, 48; Donna K. Nagata, Journal of Asian and African Studies , 26.3-4 (1991): 321–22.
  13. Andy Marx, Variety , Nov. 10, 1992, accessed on Feb. 9, 2016 at .
Media Details
Author Gretel Ehrlich
Pages 412
Publication Date 1988
For More Information

For More Information

Bongiovanni, Marie. "Gretel Ehrlich (21 January 1946-)." Twentieth-Century American Nature Writers: Prose . Ed. Roger Thompson and J. Scott Bryson. Vol. 275. Detroit: Gale, 2003. 121-28.

Ehrlich, Gretel. Wyoming Stories . Santa Barbara, Calif.: Capra Press, 1986.

———. Drinking Dry Clouds . Santa Barbara, Calif.: Capra Press, 1991.

Morris, Gregory L. " When East Meets West: The Passions of Landscape and Culture in Gretel Ehrlich's Heart Mountain ." Great Plains Quarterly 12.1 (1992): 50–59.

Wackett, James. "An Interview with Gretel Ehrlich." North Dakota Quarterly 58.3 (1990): 121–27.



Flanagan, Margaret. Booklist , Oct. 15, 1988, 364. ["An eloquent evocation of a shameful episode in American history."]

Hongo Garrett. " Love Beyond the Fences ." New York Times , Nov. 6, 1988. ["There is a responsible liberalism in the novel that is much preferable to the racism of a former time, or even to the cynicism of the commercial exercise that this could have been and is not. But it misses a higher goal, which is to grant fully equal, human status to those people thought by others to be subhuman."]

Kirkus Reviews , Oct. 1, 1988, 1083. ["A quasi-philosophic treatment of the internment period, which, within mighty Wyoming scenery, rich with the movements of animals and birds and weathers, underscores the essential unity of man--in nobilities as well as basest crimes, and in vulnerability to fate and nature."]

Kishiyama, David. " A Relocation of the Heart ." Los Angeles Times , Oct. 30, 1988. ["It is such a superb account of those dark war years it should be required reading for all Japanese-Americans."]

Larson, Charles R. " 'Heart Mountain': A Strong, True First Novel of the Fusion and Clash of Cultures. " Chicago Tribune , Nov. 6, 1988. ["The strength of the novel resides in the simplicity of her story: By concentrating always on the human element and by creating a panorama of believable characters, she has written a totally compelling narrative that never dominates her vision of life`s unexpected mysteries."]

Nagata, Donna K. Journal of Asian and African Studies 26.3-4 (1991): 321–22. [Since there is no bibliography included in the book to provide additional references on the internment, readers have little guidance in expanding their understanding of this highly significant historical event."]

Nixon, Will. "Mountain Ramble." Village Voice , Jan. 24, 1989, 48. ["Prejudice remains too distant in the book, represented only by comments from the brutish camp guards or placards in shop windows…. By showing us flash cards of redneck stupidity instead of investigating the complicated forces that spawned these camps, Ehrlich misses the chance to write a deeply political novel."]

Publishers Weekly , Aug. 12, 1988, 440. [Ehrlich's assiduous research is evident, yet worthy as is her desire to expose the injuries dealt to innocent citizens in a time of national panic, her characters are often only wafer-thin.]

Roe, Kathy. " Distant War Casts a Shadow over Heart Mountain. " Orlando Sentinel , Jan. 22, 1989. ["From the bar owner who once studied to be a priest to the retarded boy who cares for fighting cocks, her characters are a motley, vivid crew imbued with the power only a good writer can give."]

Rubin, Merle. " Wartime Lives Out of Balance ." Christian Science Monitor , Nov. 18, 1988, 22. ["... is not just another 'social issue' novel. Ehrlich has integrated a specific historical event and the issues connected with it into a larger, more intricate work of imaginative fiction."]

UPI , Nov. 4, 1988. ["The Japanese-American characters are not given the same depth, although Ehrlich obviously has great feeling for their plight."]

Willms, Dean. Library Journal , Oct. 1, 1988, 100. ["Ehrlich here puts her considerable gifts to good use, expressing her love for the land and people of Wyoming in beautifully crafted prose."]