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BOOK DISCUSSION GUIDE

Title: Tallgrass
Author: Sandra Dallas

Summary: Tallgrass takes place in a small town in Colorado during World War II. The story revolves around the interaction between the residents of the farming community of Ellis, Colorado and the Japanese-Americans interned at “Tallgrass”. The Stroud family finds life turned upside down when the government opens a Japanese internment camp in their small Colorado town. After a young girl is murdered, all eyes (and suspicions) turn to the newcomers, the interlopers, the strangers.

Rennie Stroud, the narrator, is a 13 year old girl, the youngest of three. Her older sister Marthalice moved to Denver immediately after high school to work for “the war effort” and her brother Buddy "joined up" and is away in the army. Rennie is dealing with the usual 12 year old concerns, but also is shouldering more responsibility in her farm family as the only child left to help out. Through her eyes, we see the building of the camp, the reaction of the “locals” and the interplay of relationships among family and neighbors and “strangers” as the plot unfolds.

Major themes that emerge in Tallgrass are prejudice, courage, family and community connections, and how fear creates hatred and disregard for human rights. It is also a coming-of-age story, as events in the story lead Rennie to see her family and her community in a new light, her perspective shifts from that of a child to a young adult. The Stroud family in Tallgrass has been compared with the Finch family in To Kill A Mockingbird. Rennie is reminiscent in many ways of Scout, and her father, Loyal, has many of the same qualities we saw in Atticus Finch.

Tallgrass conveys the particulars of small town Colorado life in the 1940’s, the essence of the landscape and at the same time carries a universal message of the importance of decency, honesty, acceptance and compassion.

The fictional “Tallgrass” was based on a real-life Japanese relocation camp named Amache, near Grenada, Colorado. Dallas says she saw remnants of it, cement pads where the barracks had stood, during a 1961 pheasant hunting trip. And later she learned that the buildings where she attended journalism classes at University of Colorado were from the camp’s salvaged barracks which were moved to campus. Dallas also had read oral histories in the book, Amache: The Story of Japanese Internment in Colorado During World War II. She also stated in an interview for the Saginaw News that she “saw a corollary in today’s Guantanamo Bay—how fear and prejudice, a pretty bad reason, take away concern for human rights”.

Questions:
1. One of the central themes of this book was prejudice and cultural misunderstanding, how it was manifested in wartime and times of concern for national security. What parallels do you see between Japanese internment in the 1940’s and the situation in the Iraq War where suspected terrorists are being held in Guantanamo? Other comparisons have been made between Tallgrass and To Kill A Mockingbird – what similarities and differences do you see between the Colorado community in 1942 and the deep south in the 1930’s?

2. This is also a “coming of age” story. What were some of the significant moments in the story when Rennie was treated more as an adult member of the family than as a child?

3. How did you see Sandra Dallas’ portrayal of the roles of men and women in that place and time? How did she show women’s strength and men’s compassion?

4. Tallgrass shows Rennie dealing with some tough issues – rape, murder, prejudice and danger to her family. How much of her opinions seemed to come from her family and how much from her own observations?

5. At different times and in different ways, both Rennie’s parents stood up for the Japanese interned at the camps – what did this say to you about the ability to be part of a community and still speak out when you see prejudice or injustice? How do you think the actions of Loyal and Mary may have affected the way the Japanese were treated and/or perceived by the community?

6. In the 1940’s it was taken for granted that men acted and women talked. How much complicity do you think women have in the actions of their men: Mrs. Smith in her husband’s late night raid on Tallgrass, Mrs. Snow in her husband’s descent into addiction and his treatment of her and Betty Joyce; Mrs. Reddick in her husband’s refusal to acknowledge Helen? What gave Mary Stroud the courage to confront the men outside of Tallgrass on the night of the raid?

7. Sandra Dallas in an interview once said “I say the west IS a character in my books”. How do you see this quality of “place” as a “character” in Tallgrass?

8. Rennie’s parents hold honesty out as an important value and they caution her to tell the truth. How does this square with some of the “family secrets” that are later revealed in the book? How does this color the way Mary and Loyal chose to handle the killing of Danny Spano?

9. Who were your favorite characters and why? How did Sandra Dallas make them come alive for you?

Related Information:
Amache Japanese Internment Camp

The Amache Japanese Internment Camp
Through Records at the Colorado State Archives

An Interview with Sandra Dallas

Reviews (select #4 and click on Tallgrass)

Questions and related information provided by Judy Prest.

This discussion guide made possible with public funds from the New York State Council on the Arts, a State Agency. Sponsored by the Mohawk Valley Library System and participating member libraries.

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