THE CLIMATE OF THE COUNTRY

By Marnie Mueller

Curbstone. 310 pp. $24.95

Reviewed by Mary Ishimoto Morris

The day after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in 1942, my uncle, Tom Asaki, first son of Japanese immigrants, enlisted in the U.S. Army. When the United States ordered relocation of all residents of Japanese ancestry on suspicion of spying, my grandmother told her family not to worry. Tom was serving their country; they wouldn't have to move. Shaken when forced to move anyway, she fell ill and died within a few months.

My mother remembers when all internees were required to sign two oaths: one affirming loyalty to the United States, the other forswearing ties to Japan. Her generation was born American, but their parents were not permitted American citizenship -- if their parents signed the second oath, they would not have a country. Some internees felt they should answer loyally, but others were outraged by this added insult to the already egregious unfairness imposed. Those who signed "no-no" were transferred to Tule Lake Japanese American Segregation Camp in northern California. The "loyals" there who were struggling to build a sense of community quickly found themselves at odds with the militant newcomers.

The Climate of the Country opens on a frigid winter night as Denton Jordan, who supervises business enterprises at Tule Lake, and his wife return from an evening at the movies. They arrive at the camp to find that the director has placed it under martial law. While they were gone, the no-nos, angry that a deceased farmworker would not be allowed a traditional funeral, had crossed into the administrative quarters wielding lumber and baseball bats. Denton rushes to a meeting between community leaders and the camp director. He tries unsuccessfully to unite Toki Jonin, an older, respected businessman, who represents the loyals, and young Nebo Mota, leader of the rebels, a hotheaded ex-student whose mother suffered a mental breakdown during relocation. To protect the tenuous quality of life for the internees, Denton hopes to avoid further antagonizing the camp director, who only cares about order, not the problems or concerns of the people under his authority.

Denton is a pacifist. Leaving a meeting one night, he is jumped and beaten by unseen attackers. The force of his outrage causes him to doubt the authenticity of his pacifism. He finds himself secretly identifying with, even guiltily admiring, Nebo Mota's violent activism. At home, his Jewish-American wife, Esther, is becoming angry and closed toward him. She is not clear why herself. Is it her husband's dedication to his work, keeping him from home? Is it his pacifism, which would emasculate him in the eyes of her parents if she let Denton tell them that it wasn't medical disability that kept him from fighting the Nazis? Is it her self-doubts about mothering their pre-school-age daughter, which makes her jealous of Denton's ease in making the child smile and laugh?

As tensions grow in the personal, social and political lives of Mueller's characters, each evolves to greater awareness of self-empowerment and the world. In the desolate camp setting, instances of courage, bright and warm, break through, as when Esther, a teacher, arrives at the school to discover it's been closed due to the unrest. She finds another teacher, Hiroko Onji, and a handful of bewildered students wondering what to do. To the dejected internees' utter delight, Esther defiantly suggests that they all go to Onji's barracks room and hold class there despite the ban.

We journey into Denton's soul as he becomes increasingly alone, literally as well as spiritually. A disillusioned co-worker leaves because his work for the internees seems unappreciated since the arrival of the militants. Because of lies the militants have spread about Denton, once-trusting internees have become suspicious of him. Even his wife and daughter leave him for a while, to visit her parents and to get a break from the stress of camp life. While wrestling with his conscience over the integrity of his pacifism, he is beset with moral issues when he succumbs to an affair with Alice, a pretty, compassionate, self-aware camp nurse.

Marnie Mueller, who was the first Caucasian baby born at Tule Lake, based her book on the camp work of her parents, Don and Ruth Elberson, which is documented in records stored at the National Archives and the University of California at Berkeley. The Climate of the Country is a valuable addition to the too-thin collection of literature addressing this painful episode of American history. But Denton and Esther Jordan's personal and public struggles are those of men and women of any time or place who take a stand against injustice and endure the consequences of their commitment.

For his brave service in the 442nd regiment, my uncle was awarded a Purple Heart. For their heroic advocacy for social justice, despite political incorrectness and personal costs, Don and Ruth Elberson are honored with their daughter's sensitive, intelligent, humanitarian and truthful rendering of a time our country must not forget.

Mary Ishimoto Morris is a third-generation Japanese American.