‘Tallgrass’ author’s visit concludes One Book One Valley events

Sandra Dallas signed books and spoke about the 2022 One Book One Valley selection

Colorado author Sandra Dallas signs copies of ‘Tallgrass’ for students at Vail Mountain School.
Vail Library/Courtesy Photo

The 2022 One Book One Valley event series concluded last week with an in-person visit and presentation by Colorado author Sandra Dallas. Dallas is the writer behind this year’s two selected titles: “Tallgrass,” and its children’s reading level counterpart, “Red Berries, White Clouds, Blue Sky.”

A tradition since 2010, One Book One Valley is a collaborative effort between The Bookworm of Edwards, Colorado Mountain College Vail Valley, Vail Public Library, Vail Mountain School and local high schools to get the entire valley to read the same book. This year’s selection is a historical fiction novel that takes place at Camp Amache, a World War II-era Japanese relocation camp in the southeastern Colorado town of Granada.

Over the course of the past few months, the One Book One Valley team has organized a number of events to provide readers with a more immersive experience into the subject of the novel. Recent events include a virtual Zoom presentation featuring conversations with three survivors of the Amache camp, and a living history performance featuring an impersonation of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who was opposed to the federal decision to detain Japanese civilians during World War II. Dallas’ April 7 presentation at Colorado Mountain College in Edwards concluded this year’s event series.

Fiction shines light on the the facts

Dallas is the author of 18 adult novels, four young reader novels, and eight non-fiction books, and she specializes in Western historical fiction. She began her writing career as a reporter and bureau chief for BusinessWeek magazine in the Denver region, and said that she did not originally imagine herself as a novelist.

“I was always going to write books about land use, and water policy, and all these important issues that we have in the West,” Dallas said. “When you’re a reporter, you have a notebook full of notes, and you have to get them into your computer in some way. When you write fiction, you’ve just got that blank page, and you don’t know what’s going to happen.”

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She published her first novel, a 1920s-era story called “Buster Midnight’s Cafe,” in 1990, and has been using fiction to unearth historical details and experiences ever since.

A sign stands at the entrance to Camp Amache, the site of a former World War II-era Japanese-American internment camp in Granada, Colo.
Russell Contreras/AP Photo

Dallas said that the seeds for “Tallgrass” were planted back when she was an undergraduate student at the University of Denver, and a friend brought her to the Camp Amache National Historic Landmark for the first time.

“He said, ‘I’ll take you to see something you’ve never heard about,’ and he took me to see the site of Amache,” Dallas said. “I went to the library and looked up a lot of information about it, and found out that after the war, the buildings from Amache were sold, and some went to DU, and one of my journalism classes had actually been held in one of them.”

Dallas said that the setting of a book is the most important part of the writing process for her, which is why many of her novels take place in different areas of the state. By being able to physically step into the environments that her characters exist in, she strives to rebuild the world of that era and bring her readers with her.

“I go to the site where my books are set, and simply soak it up,” Dallas said. “What would you think if you got off a train and you were from California on a strawberry farm, and you stepped out of a train in Granada, Colorado, and looked at the prairie. What would your reaction have been? That element is probably what I enjoy most about writing. It’s just going someplace, and trying to visualize what it was like.”

During World War II, around 7,500 Japanese civilians were forcefully removed from their homes in California and transported by train to the Amache camp in Granada. The U.S. federal government, paranoid about Japanese spies within the country’s borders, rounded up over 150,000 Japanese civilians during the war to live under armed guard in makeshift camps until the war ended in 1945.

Dallas said that the governor of Colorado invited the Japanese, at his own political peril, but the general sentiment was vehemently against allowing them in. During her presentation, she quoted a Denver Post article from the time period that read, “No worse thing could happen to Colorado than to turn it into a sanctuary for Jap enemies. Japs should be under guard, to hell with habeas corpus’.”

Dallas poses with Lori Ann Barnes, the director of library services for the Vail Public Library.
Vail Library/Courtesy photo

“People in the community did not want them in town,” Dallas said. “There were signs saying ‘No Japs allowed.’ The undertaker refused to bury any Japanese who had died. The ice cream parlor would not serve the Japanese.”

The Japanese were no more enemies than Germans and Italians were during the war, but Dallas emphasized that racism, social isolation and economic incentive all played into the U.S. government’s decision to create the internment camps.

“Most Japanese were on the West Coast, and most Americans didn’t know them, they weren’t spread throughout the country,” Dallas said. “There was a certain amount of greed in all of this. The Japanese owned 70 million dollars worth of land on the West Coast, and there were people who wanted that land and the fishing rights and so on for other Japanese businesses. And so they encouraged this kind of scenario.”

History repeats itself

In recreating the environment of the time period for “Tallgrass,” Dallas said that she wanted to emphasize that this type of dangerous hysteria, combined with stereotypes and other incentives, continues to be seen in today’s day and age leading to similarly egregious consequences. Though she had the idea to write a book set in the Amache camp since college, she became motivated to pursue the subject in earnest after reading about the tactics taking place at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp during the War on Terror.

​​”Men were being held at Guantanamo without charges, and I wondered — is this happening again? And that fear and prejudice were happening again, just as they are happening now,” Dallas said.

In opening her speech at Colorado Mountain College, Dallas expressed that “Tallgrass” is set many decades ago, but the basic issues that enable such a camp to come into existence remain alive in our modern world.

“I’m delighted that you’ve picked ‘Tallgrass’ for One Book One Valley because I think what happened in 1942 — the prejudice and the bigotry behind all of that — exists today, and I think we are seeing a resurgence of hatred, of prejudice, discrimination,” Dallas said. “The circumstances are different, but I think it’s happening again.”

Dallas hopes historical fiction novels like “Tallgrass” will help readers learn from the past.
Vail Library/Courtesy Photo

At the end of the war, only 10 Americans were charged as spies for the Japanese army — all 10, Dallas said, were caucasian.

“Tallgrass” brings readers into the lives of those who bore the burden of this prejudice in the previous century, and Dallas hopes that in reading the story, people will take lessons from the past so that we can avoid repeating such mistakes in the future.

“I don’t set out to preach or to try to influence people in thinking,” Dallas said. “I just felt this is something that people should know about, that because we are seeing all of these things happen again, we should know about what happened in the past.”

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