As I read “The Eagles of Heart Mountain,” one word kept circling through my brain — resilience.
Bradford Pearson’s book about the football teams from the Heart Mountain internment camp in northwestern Wyoming helps show the resilience of people who had everything stripped away from them except one another.
In Wyoming, we often get half the story about Japanese American internment at Heart Mountain. We hear the “during” of the story — how Japanese Americans from the West Coast came to Wyoming by force, how they persevered throughout their imprisonment, how they found their way in a shameful period of American choices.
“The Eagles of Heart Mountain,” though, shows a more complete picture of the breakdown of societal norms that allowed for more than 100,000 American citizens to be imprisoned by their own government due to their “blood.” It shows the development and richness of Japanese American culture in California prior to World War II; it shows the sacrifices they made to uphold both their American citizenship and their dignity and the lengths they had to go to show their loyalty to a country that deemed their very presence a threat to national security; and it shows the perseverance of those who had every reason to do the opposite. For Wyoming readers, the book will fill in “before” and “after” for many who may have only heard the “during.”
The resilience shows up at a variety of places in the book: a racetrack in suburban Los Angeles, a courtroom in Cheyenne, railroad tracks in eastern Washington, a prison in Kansas. Each could make an amazing book on their own.
However, the driver of the narrative of the book is the resilience shown by a group of Heart Mountain teenagers on a dusty football field in Park County. Football was just one vehicle for the resilience demonstrated time and again by Japanese Americans — and the Eagles had plenty of it.
The book introduces many people throughout its 301 pages. Wyoming residents will appreciate the references to Johnny Winterholler, Carl Dir, Charles Roberts, LeRoy Pearce, Joe Schwartz and others who dotted Wyoming’s athletics pantheon before and during World War II.
But that group is incomplete without the stories of Tamotsu “Babe” Nomura, George “Horse” Yoshinaga, and the rest of the Eagles from Heart Mountain. Their story — their “before” and “after,” not just their “during” — is worth your attention. And the dramatic retelling of the Eagles’ biggest, and final, game against Natrona will remind readers of “Friday Night Lights.” The difference, though, is that in “The Eagles of Heart Mountain,” the stakes go well beyond those of a state championship.
Pearson’s research shines at every step, giving readers both a complete picture of the big-picture hypocrisy that led to the imprisonment of American citizens and the personal choices made by politicians, civic leaders, business owners, coaches, lawyers and, most importantly, the Japanese Americans who had their lives changed forever.
Order “The Eagles of Heart Mountain” here. List price $28.
Note: This review is unsolicited.