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Tule Lake Travail

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The Climate of the Country
By Marnie Mueller
Curbstone Press; 305 pages; $24.95 cloth

Marnie Mueller's novel exposes internment camps

By Ralph Seliger

IF THE NAZIS had stopped short of the gas chambers, the killing battalions and other instrumentalities of genocide--but "merely" stripped the Jews of their rights as citizens, their homes, professions and businesses, and confined them under armed guard--that alone would have constituted a crime of grave proportions. This is exactly what the United States did to 120,000 citizens and legal residents of Japanese descent during World War II, "relocating" them in 10 camps from California to Arkansas.

Part of this story is told in The Climate of the Country, a semiautobiographical novel by Marnie Mueller, published by the nonprofit, socially conscious Curbstone Press. In 1994, Curbstone published Mueller's first book, Green Fires. Like Mueller herself, the protagonist of Green Fires was born in a Japanese-American internment camp in California of a Jewish mother and a conscientious objector father, had been a disappointed early Peace Corps volunteer in Ecuador in the 1960s and became program manager of New York's Pacifica/WBAI radio station.

The Climate of the Country is a kind of prequel to Green Fires, although not exactly: The author returns to the internment camp at Tule Lake where she was born, where her father played a very significant role as a C.O. member of the staff and where her mother taught elementary school.

The plot focuses mainly upon the marital tensions between her fictionalized parents amid the turbulence of the oppressive camp, where innocent people are held under military guard. This difficult situation is exacerbated by the conflict between the militant and peaceful factions among the inmates.

Mueller also spins the tangential thread of her Jewish grandparents--refugees from Germany--as they gradually learn of the magnitude of the Holocaust. These characters--the domineering and professionally driven scientist grandmother, the weak but kindly grandfather--serve as reminders for the two protagonists of the horror going on in Europe, which historically overshadowed the smaller yet substantial injustice occurring before their eyes.

For the gentile husband/father Denton Jordan, the existence of this refugee family triggers an examination of the meaning of conscientious objection and pacifism as he wrestles with the impulse to enlist in the fight against the Nazis. Jordan is the business agent for the camp's cooperative enterprises, doing for Tule Lake what he had done much of his life as an itinerant organizer for the cooperative movement. In thereby subjecting his immediate family to lives of rootlessness and insecurity, he comes to question the value of his activism.

Denton, his teacher-wife, Esther, and their colleagues are liberals and radicals (most are Jews) who sympathize with the internees and hate or distrust hard-line civilian administrators and military authorities. But they also must struggle against the increasingly violent antipathy of the Hoshidan, the head-banded young militants in the camp.

THE STORY is set after the time in January 1943 when Nisei (second-generation Japanese-Americans) were being recruited for military service. Several thousand young men left the camps to prove themselves as Americans. The all-Nisei 442nd Regimental Combat Team became the most decorated unit, with the highest casualty rate, of any of comparable size to serve the United States in World War II.

Tule Lake "Relocation Camp" was reconstituted as a "Segregation Center" to confine under enhanced security those deemed "disloyal" among the overall population of internees. These were known as the "No-Nos"--individuals and families who had had the courage or audacity to refuse to affirm two sections of a loyalty questionnaire being forced upon them. Question #27 asked if they were "willing to serve in the armed forces of the United States, in combat duty, wherever ordered." Question #28 asked them to give "unqualified allegiance to the United States ... and [to] forswear any form of allegiance or obedience to the Japanese emperor, or any foreign government, power or organization."

Many of these No-Nos were deported to Japan after the war, even if they were women or men far older than military age who refused out of self-
respect to pledge their loyalty to a government that had imprisoned them.

Since the plot mostly follows the lives of the Caucasian staff and their families, the Japanese-American characters do not come across as memorably. But one scene that struck home was the poignant depiction of new arrivals being disembarked at the camp in May 1942. They are tired, disoriented and very frightened as they see themselves behind barbed wire within a stark, massive collection of bare barracks that will house 18,000 souls on a desolate wind-swept dry lake bed in northern California near the Oregon state line.

In 1988, President George Bush officially apologized on behalf of the United States government and offered $20,000 in financial compensation to individual Japanese-Americans, but details of this historical outrage are still not well known. Reading this true-to-life novel is a way of learning more, although it has an unsettlingly incomplete quality that leaves the reader wanting to know more still: Will Esther and Denton Jordan's marriage survive? Will Denton enlist in the war? And who among the internees will make a successful transition back to American society, and how? Perhaps Marnie Mueller is planning a sequel. I hope so.

Ralph Seliger, a child of Holocaust survivors, is a contributing editor of PS: The Intelligent Guide to Jewish Affairs, a biweekly newsletter.

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From the February 25-March 3, 1999 issue of Metro.

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