Fifty-four years ago, the district office of the Civilian Conservation Corps, located on a grassy spot near Missoula's country club, opened its gates to two thousand Italian and Japanese men and closed the gates again. For the next three years, while World War II raged on, Fort Missoula served as a detention camp.
In An Alien Place, Carol Van Valkenburg has gathered together every available piece of local data concerning the prisoners detained at Fort Missoula, detailing a brief historical moment in a small American town.
Van Valkenburg's strength lies in her research, a collection of exhaustive data useful to anyone studying internment camps. The 2,000 prisoners slept in low-lying bunkhouses, did minimal chores and their own laundry. They ate meals in the same cafeteria but kept apart culturally (the Italians asked for and got olive oil shipped in; the Japanese requested fish and rice). As each separate nation appointed its leaders and spokesmen, a government emerged within the camp.
Van Valkenburg focuses her story on Missoula. As the prisoners tedious lives are recounted and Missoula natives adjust to their neighbors, she tells a surprisingly domestic story. Missoula suddenly had foreigners, and the author describes the young women looking through the fence and the police who couldn't tell a Korean tourist from a Japanese prisoner in custody. She culls Missoulian editorials for the changing attitudes toward the Japanese and Italians, which range from curious to racist, welcoming to fiercely xenophobic. Van Valkenburg methodically lays out the facts and lets them speak for themselves, characterizing this moment as somewhat benign in Missoula's history.
The skepticism that opens Annick Smiths Homestead will resonate with many readers who have struck out for unknown territories. To the city friends she left behind, Smiths new home of Missoula, Montana, was in 1970 still locked in the myth of the West, a dangerous, inhospitable frontier. With a foreigners curiosity and the devotion of an adopted daughter, she records impressions, anecdotes and memories of Montana in her volume of essays.
The essays, gathered from magazines and anthologies, examine a simple, good life from many angles. Smith writes with unbridled joy of the pleasures of a grassy river bank, an elk in the snow, the work of brand inspectors, the gathering of good friends. Her parents, Jewish Hungarian emigres, lived in Paris when she was born, then moved the family to Chicago. In her own travels, Smith finds parallels with her ancestry: the nomadic restlessness, the adventure and sadness in foreign lands.
In the finest essay, after which the book is titled, Smith recounts the story of her own arrival with her young, sick husband and their sons, their claim on the land and the land's claim on them. She documents the beginnings of a new self she felt stir and her husbands death. Smith grows from wife and mother into a writer, a film producer, a woman at home. But her story of herself is bound up with the land, for this circular book, while describing the grass and sun and beauty of Montana, deftly traverses her personal terrain.
Smith evolves from an outsider to one who considers herself part of the landscape. The young Smith, she tells us, sought a home when she arrived in Montana, and the writer has discovered that home comes from a peace within. Montana, she writes in this love letter, brought her that peace. We can never be abandoned, she writes in the essay, Homestead. The love you have had will never abandon you.
Early in his book Borneo Log, William W. Bevis spends five pages describing a single tree. We are deceived by the word tree, a clean noun from the world of hard edges and ice, he begins. This [tree] is a gathering, a neighborhood, a mob of vegetation; in fact, I can hardly see the tree. And then, from the depths of the Sarawak forest, where Bevis investigates the Borneo culture and its intricate relationship with logging, he delivers a description of this extraordinary living creature so beautifully detailed that the mesmerized reader can smell and hear the forest.
This is a moment of drama in his story, and Bevis' trick and talent is transforming both senses of the word log into theater. With his wife and a guide, he journeys upriver into the forests, learning this foreign culture of logging--thousands of miles away from his home, Missoula, Montana, also affected by the timber industry.
Bevis tells an old tale, one of greed and colonizing. He deftly blends Borneo's history of rajahs and commercial enterprise into the murky weave of entangled vines that darken the magnificent rain forests. To help us comprehend the scope of the logging and its effects he details global shifts in the wood trade. Then he follows a single tree from its forest felling to Japan's buzzing neon marketplace and its fate as disposable frames for the drying of cement.
He writes sometimes in diary form, details keen and sharp, sometimes in the authorial voice of a researcher. What emerges is almost a thriller, rich with villainous raiders, deceived natives, poverty-ravished families and himself, this modern day Marlow who goes up the river into the jungle and learns a terrible tale that illuminates his life and ours.
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