Heart Mountain: A Novel

Heart Mountain: A Novel

by Gretel Ehrlich

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A “dazzling first novel” about Japanese Americans and their Wyoming neighbors in the era of WWII internment camps (Chicago Tribune).

A renowned chronicler of life in the West, Gretel Ehrlich turns her talents to a moment in history when American citizens were set against each other, offering “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” (The New York Times Book Review).
This is the story of Kai, a graduate student reunited with his old-fashioned parents in the most painful way possible; Mariko, a gifted artist; Mariko’s husband, a political dissident; and her aging grandfather, a Noh mask carver from Kyoto. It is also the story of McKay, who runs his family farm outside the nearby town; Pinkey, an alcoholic cowboy; and Madeleine, whose soldier husband is missing in the Pacific. Most of all, Heart Mountain is about what happens when these two groups collide. Politics, loyalty, history, love—soon the bedrocks of society will seem as transient and fleeting as life itself.
Set at the real-life Heart Mountain Relocation Center in Wyoming, this powerful novel paints “a sweeping, yet finely shaded portrait of a real West unfolding in historical time” (The Christian Science Monitor).

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781504042864
Publisher: Open Road Media
Publication date: 02/21/2017
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 432
Sales rank: 743,042
File size: 4 MB

About the Author

Gretel Ehrlich is an award-winning writer and naturalist. Born and raised in California, she was educated at Bennington College and UCLA Film School. She is the author of thirteen books, including the essay collection The Solace of Open Spaces (1985), the novel Heart Mountain (1988), and the memoirs A Match to the Heart: One Woman’s Story of Being Struck by Lightning (1994) and This Cold Heaven: Seven Seasons in Greenland (2001), as well as The Future of Ice: A Journey into Cold (2004), and, most recently, Facing the Wave: A Journey in the Wake of a Tsunami (2014). Her prose pieces have appeared in Harper’s, the Atlantic, the New York Times Magazine, and National Geographic, among many other publications. Ehrlich lives in Montana and Hawaii.

Read an Excerpt

Heart Mountain

A Novel

By Gretel Ehrlich


Copyright © 1988 Gretel Ehrlich
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-5040-4286-4


Then it was the day McKay's brothers left for the front by bus to the county seat, train to San Francisco, troop transfer ship to the Hawaiian Islands, and from there, catapulted into what was known as the Pacific theater, as if war had a proscenium, McKay thought, as if its horrors could be contained.

After, he unfolded a cot on the screened porch of the house and took off his clothes. It was August and he was hot and he did not want to live inside the house anymore. The cot felt cool. He closed his eyes and listened to the wind for a long time. It brushed back and forth over the ranch like a massage gone on too long, everything under its touch getting sorer and sorer.

His parents had been dead for twelve years and his brothers had gone to war. The whole state had emptied out and now he ran the ranch with one Japanese cook who was afraid of horses and an aging, alcoholic cowboy who went on a binge every time there was a storm.

The ranch bordered the Heart Mountain Relocation Camp where ten thousand Japanese-Americans and their immigrant parents from the West Coast were to be confined. He had seen it come quickly into existence and heard the hammering and the dozing of the earth. He had stood with his strong hands flat against the screen, listening. The porch was his isolation booth, a cell in wide open space, and he heard the first guard tower at the Camp go up on stilts, forty feet in the air.

He lay down and rolled on his back and sucked the blood from his right hand where it had gone through glass. He had fought that morning with his brother Champ, who had a chip on his shoulder about McKay. "Prince fucking Charming," Champ called him, because McKay had more brains and common sense, good looks, and more natural ability than anyone in the valley; he rode broncs so gracefully, he made it look like ballet. Sitting in the backseat of the car that would take them to the train station, Champ had turned to McKay at the last moment.

"I don't know what's wrong here," Champ had said. "What makes you so goddamned special you can't go to war."

McKay grabbed the car door but Champ rolled the window closed. As the engine started, he recalled seeing his brother's stubborn profile, the bump where his nose had been broken riding saddle broncs and the deep-set, resentful eyes. McKay's arm had pulled back suddenly, bursting through glass until it collided with Champ's jaw. The driver quickly released the handbrake and the car rolled forward. Through the smashed window McKay saw the stunned look on Champ's face and his older brother, Ted, trying to get the driver to stop and the car moving ahead until it was taken by heat waves.

Now McKay felt with his tongue for slivers. The skin was torn back in long flaps from the middle knuckle and the breeze that carried the mountain air onto the porch made the cut sting.

He was young, only twenty-four, but his eyes looked tired. Sometimes he imagined one of the bombs dropped at Pearl Harbor had gone AWOL and was following him. "It's just us desperados left behind," Pinkey, the hired hand, said. "Just those ones of us too ornery to do any good over there." McKay hadn't passed the army physical because of the horse accident the year before. He was more legs than torso and his reedlike body was as pale and graceful as a sandhill crane's except for the limp. One leg was shorter now and something locked in the middle of his otherwise graceful stride. When he went to town, he found he could not share in the rounds of pride and hope and grief over the "boys" at the front because he did not know if going to war made you a hero.

Bobby tapped McKay on the shoulder. "It's time," he said.

McKay sat up. It was still dark outside.

"What time is it?"

"Four. But snow very bad."

McKay leaped out of bed and dressed. It was only September but two feet of snow had fallen during the night. He rode alone from pasture to pasture opening gates so the cattle, driven by wind, would not suffocate where snow drifted at fencelines. Heart Mountain towered above him. It was a geological freak. A limestone block, it broke away from the Rocky Mountain cordillera 40 million years ago and skidded east along a detachment fault shaking free and moving again just as the Shoshone River changed its course and Yellowstone Park was a nest of volcanoes that blew. McKay tried to imagine the mountain's choked, laggard polka into existence, when the earth around the fault quavered like jelly and blocks of lighter rock skittered and tumbled across the earth's unstable surface.

Now the wind blew out of the north, then came around from the opposite direction with a thumping, forward motion. McKay remembered that during the night one tree exploded, dropping branches into the lower limbs like bodies being carried home from war. Others broke from the weight of snow in sharp reports — reminders that there was a war on. He needed none. He'd had a bad dream. He was in a hospital looking for his brothers. Room after room was filled with bodies stacked up. Their heads and limbs had been cut off and the torsos were tied together in bundles like newspapers to be sent home. For the rest of the night he lay awake wondering if he was a coward.

At the upper end of the last pasture McKay rode the timber looking for bulls. When he emerged wet flakes of snow hit his face. He thought of these slopes as the neck of Heart Mountain. Its powerful torso was the ranch. The colt picked his way down the rocky slope. The saddle slipped forward on his withers and McKay watched the shoulder muscles bulge and lengthen and let his own body sway from side to side with the colt's gait. McKay had not been happy at college or on the trips to Mexico with his father but only here under the clipped top of Heart Mountain where he imagined there was an eye that saw him, sometimes the only eye, and a beacon light which led his grasping, solitary thoughts home.

McKay heard rock tumbling. It was getting dark and he strained to see. Far below the lights of the ranch house came into view and to the south, the lights of the relocation camp. He heard the noise again, then made out a bull elk trotting down a steep sidehill. It was a massive animal with a hump over its shoulders and a swept-back rack of antlers attached precariously to its head.

When the bull stopped, McKay stopped. The animal lifted its head and a long, looping whistle came up through its neck, followed by heaving grunts. Then the bull started down the slope. At the bottom, he cut through a field of grain to the reservoir. The sky had cleared in the west. McKay saw the sun shine for a moment, then sink below the horizon. When the bull pawed at the water, it looked as if he were pulling his leg through shattered glass. The pink in the sky stained the water and the bull lowered his neck and drank.

McKay heard hooves clatter on rock. He turned in the saddle and saw a herd of fifty or sixty cow elk with calves and young bulls flooding down the slope. They waded in. Their backs were dusted with snow and they kneeled down in the lake until water covered their bodies and rose up suddenly with a whooshing sound. One calf walked to the back of the bull and sniffed his rump, then immersed himself and came up dripping and mewing for his mother.

When McKay's colt stretched his neck forward and coughed, the elk turned nervously, shaking off water. The lake was all silver now and the banks of the lake and the alfalfa field surrounding it were almost black. McKay looked up at Heart Mountain. The band of light in the west had been extinguished. Snow began again. Some of the older cow elk climbed the dam bank. Others followed. Now the lake itself was dark and the silver showed around the legs of the animals only when they moved. The young calves went last. They dipped and splashed while their mothers looked on and called to them in seal-like barks and the bull stood on the bank and bugled. His long, sinuous whistle sounded like a whale's song.

McKay rode home. He couldn't see the trail but the horse knew the way. He wondered what Bobby was making for dinner. Not that the ranch needed a cook when there was only him and sometimes Pinkey to cook for, but Bobby Korematsu had become a fixture. In his sixties now, he had come to the ranch when McKay was seven. Hired to cook for the haying crew for one month, he stayed seventeen years, and now, he would live out the rest of his life at the ranch. He had already chosen the place where he wanted his ashes buried.


The kitchen was dark. McKay shook the snow from his jacket and lit a kerosene lamp. He had feuded with the Rural Electric Association and they had cut off his electricity. The lamp smoked at first, then the light came up beautifully in the chimney. Wind made the doors rattle and he heard the tin roof on one of the sheds heave and flatten, and when he pressed his face to the window, snow came at him in swirling waves. He opened the door to the pantry. In the near dark of the room Bobby held a dead snake's head under one foot and the tail under the other. He lopped the rattles off with a pocket knife, made a circular cut, then peeled the skin like a sock.

"Funny snake. Think he come in here for winter. Smelled him first, then heard him rattle."

"What did he smell like?"

"Cucumber. Strong ones."

With a swift stroke Bobby slit the skin so it lay flat. Then he hung it in between McKay's undershirts on the clothesline.

McKay set the lamp on the table and took down the bottle of whiskey.

"Nice weather, huh?" he said cynically.

"Too early. Garden ruin now."

"Pinkey showed up yet?"

Bobby shook his head and shrugged his shoulders. "You look like drowned rat."

"A hungry one," McKay said.

McKay peeled potatoes and Bobby stoked the wood stove hot enough to sear the steaks cut from a side of beef that had been a bull. The sound of split pine shifting into embers made McKay think about bodies falling from a burning plane and also, bodies burning from sexual heat....

"Does that powder really work, Bobby?"

Bobby wiped the sweat from his forehead, then pierced the steaks with a sharp, two-pronged fork and dropped them into the black skillet. When the steaks were arranged perfectly in the pan, he turned to McKay.

"Don't know ..."

"What do you mean you don't know?"

"Don't know any women now."

"But you have —"

Bobby smiled and turned back to the steaks. The grease they threw onto the top of the stove skittered and shone. "You young man, don't worry about these things. ..."

Bobby filled two plates with steak, potatoes, and marinated green beans he had put up that summer. They sat facing each other with a lantern and a bottle of whiskey between them. Except for the booze, everything they ate came off the ranch. Bobby's summer garden was an acre of squash, beans, carrots, beets, lettuce, tomatoes, corn, peas, and broccoli, beside a plot of herbs whose English names he did not know, as well as a Japanese garden of daikon, cabbage, eggplant, scallions, and winter melon.

McKay cut into his meat. "Poor old Heber, the Mormon bull ...," he said as he chewed. "Where the hell's Pinkey?"

"No see him. Probably drunk now since it snowed."

"I ought to move that sonofabitch to the Gobi Desert, where it never storms.... Want a shot?" McKay asked, uncorking the whiskey. Bobby shook his head. "The elk are down," McKay added.


"By the lake. About fifty head and a big bull."

Bobby stood up, went to the kitchen door, and stepped outside. A few snowflakes blew past him and frizzled on the stove. McKay looked at the old man. He was wearing his padded winter kimono and it swayed in the breeze. Beyond was blackness; then, as the wind shifted and blew up from the south, the sound of a bull elk bugling carried through the air.

Bobby returned to the chair whose legs had been cut down so his feet would touch the floor. He stabbed a piece of cut meat with his fork and held it to his mouth, then put it down again. "Everything sad now," he said solemnly.

When they finished, McKay cleared the plates and Bobby brought the sheet cake down from the cupboard. The cakes he made every week were too large for just the two of them, and he ended up giving them to the dogs and chickens, but refused to use any other pan.

"They're not dead, you know," McKay said, meaning his brothers.

"No." Bobby stared at him. "They fighting Japanese."

McKay's face flushed as he filled Bobby's shot glass. He remembered the first night after his brothers had gone to the front — how he had found Bobby in the dark kitchen crying.

"Bad war. Not good for heart," Bobby had said. "See, make me cry," he had continued, pounding his chest with his small hand.

"What if Korematsus kill your brothers?"

McKay looked fondly at the old cook. "I don't think that will happen. Ted's not even a soldier, he's a medic, he's saving lives, not taking them ... and Champ is ..." McKay stopped. He pulled a letter from his pocket. "It's from Ted. Shall I read it?"

Bobby nodded.

"Dear McKay,

"A war is a hell of a place for an idealist, that's all I can say. I requested a hospital ship. Is it illogical to suppose that in a war doctors are needed? Instead, they put me on a light cruiser, Brooklyn class, with a single bunk, clean sheets, and a Negro boy who wakes me at 7:00 A.M. every morning. My medical duties consist of ministering to heat rash, jock itch, athlete's foot, and colds. It's about as stimulating as giving the dogs worm pills. There are a thousand men on board. Once a week we eat with the enlisted men. The food is awful — mostly ram from New Zealand, canned spinach, and boiled potatoes. It's 110 degrees down there and stinks to high heaven. There's a movie every night. I've never felt so useless.

"I guess I can't tell you where we are, but the natives here are infested with parasites and malaria. The women go bare-topped. One of the guys said their breasts look like hounds' ears. I read Time magazine and everything else I can get my hands on from the library. It's the way I get lost and stay lost.

"Sorry I sound so depressed. What a shock to feel stirred up by patriotic duty, then get this ... when I could be helping, even saving lives.

"Champ's in the middle of things as usual. Last week, before we left, he squeezed a girl so hard he broke her ribs. She showed up at sick call on the base and I had to bandage her. He was down in the dumps about the quarrel he had with you that last morning and says he wishes you'd hit him harder. Funny kid. I guess Henry's the big shot now and really seeing some action in the Coral Sea.

"Sometimes I think it's worse being on this end of things because we have too much time to think. By now Bobby knows where we are. Must be tough on him. It's made being here kind of confusing for me and Champ. Henry too. We talked about it the last night we were all together. A week ago I dreamed we were at cow camp and a breeze was blowing off a snowdrift and something smelled dead and our hair had turned white and we were laughing. Love to Bobby. Madeleine too.

Your brother, Ted"

Bobby looked up. "He's not lying? He's really doctor?"

"You know Ted. He never did like a fight."

"Not like you, huh? You big fighter. Ask Champ," Bobby said, making fists.

After dinner McKay went to his sleeping porch and sat on the edge of his cot. He knew the elk were bedded down in the alfalfa field, snow deepening around them, the ridges of white resting in the bull's tines.

He lay down, his arm across his eyes. He wondered what it was like to be an elk. What did they think? What did they dream? An image of the lake came into his mind. The water was green and choppy. Then it became the ocean. Big swells lumbered past, the spray flying backward and stinging his eyes. He was swimming. Bobby came out and stood on the beach to look for McKay. What he saw were hundreds of elk heads bobbing up and down just behind where the waves begin to crest, and the big bulls' branching antlers and the one human face in the midst of them. McKay's ...


Pinkey had been up since four but sat by the cook stove and moved a spoon around in his cup until six-thirty or so. The calendar above his head read December 1942 even though it was actually September because the first gust of wind that brought the front in had blown the pages of three autumn months to the floor. Pinkey decided December sounded good enough to him, so he left November, October, and September underfoot and later, used them to start a fire.

When the wind calmed he put on his coat and overshoes. The storm clouds slid to the East. He cut the wires on the bale of hay he had used as a couch all summer and fed a third of it to his mare. He looked up. He heard the drone of a plane but could see nothing. The sky, like the ground, was white. Yesterday it had been purely blue. One cloud had passed overhead. It was shaped like a human penis and rode the airwaves erect, pointing heavenward, Pinkey had thought, so that now, his usual nuisance morning erections, ordinarily reminding him of his solitary state, became something blessed.

Before leaving he added another layer of clothes: three pairs of socks, four shirts, a coat, a muffler, gloves, and a Scotch cap with the earflaps pulled down. Then he rode toward the highway. As he looked at the sky it occurred to him that yesterday's phallic cloud had softened and drained and come apart like cooked meat into the white smithereens falling on him as snow.


Excerpted from Heart Mountain by Gretel Ehrlich. Copyright © 1988 Gretel Ehrlich. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Author's Note,
PART ONE, 1942,
PART TWO, 1943,
PART FOUR, 1945,
About the Author,

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