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Wartime lives out of balance

HEART MOUNTAIN by Gretel Ehrlich

New York: Viking. 412 pp. $18.95

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HEART MOUNTAIN, in northern Wyoming, was one of 10 relocation camps set up in remote inland areas to house 100,000 people forced to leave their homes, neighborhoods, farms, and businesses on the West Coast during World War II. Some 10,000 Issei (first-generation Japanese immigrants) and Nisei (their American-born children) were interned in this beautiful, rugged, sparsely populated region of cattle and sheep ranches.

Though scarcely luxurious, these camps compared favorably enough with other detention camps of the period. The questions they raise, therefore, are not deep riddles about radical evil, the silence of God, or man's inhumanity to man, but questions about constitutional rights, individual freedom, and simple justice. Should people who had not been charged with - or even seriously suspected of - any offense have been summarily removed from their homes, deprived of their property?

Gretel Ehrlich deals with this issue movingly and intelligently. But ``Heart Mountain'' 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. Only about half the novel is directly concerned with the Heart Mountain Relocation Camp. The other half is about the wider area around Heart Mountain: the ranches, fields, streams, and tiny towns. The people who live there, far from the war's theaters, are affected, as one character reflects, as if the war had occurred in their inner ears, altering their normal sense of balance.

McKay Allison is a rancher whose parents are dead and whose older brothers have gone to serve in the Pacific. The ranch adjoining his belongs to Madeleine Heaney, whose husband has been reported missing in action. McKay and Madeleine grew up together: At one point, he almost proposed to her. Now McKay and Madeleine are drawn closer in their struggle to maintain their ranches.

McKay is also drawn to the beautiful, sophisticated artist Mariko, interned in the camp with her husband - an outspoken political activist - and her venerable grandfather - a No mask carver. McKay and Mariko meet by chance: He shoots at a prairie dog and hits her grandfather, injuring him slightly. Mariko, sensing how bad he feels about what he has done, extends her hand. The gesture of forgiveness opens out into something far greater.

If McKay is the main character outside the camp, the main character inside is Kai Nakamura, until recently a graduate student in history at Berkeley. Kai knows very little about his Japanese roots - he scarcely knows his parents because they sent him to live with an English-speaking family when he entered his teens. He, too, is enchanted by Mariko and disturbed by what he sees of her rocky marriage. Kai keeps a journal, and much of what we learn about camp life is filtered through his perceptive ears and eyes.

``Heart Mountain'' is about the West, that wild, familiar landscape that figures so powerfully in the American dream. It is also about history, often presumed a dead subject in the West, where nature outstrips civilization and the past is popularly supposed to survive only in legends and tall tales. By 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.

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Merle Rubin reviews books regularly for the Monitor.

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