A cold rain was falling when we pulled into the parking lot of Minidoka. Although this WWII internment camp is managed by the National Park Service, there is no visitor center, there are no guides. When we visited, there were no people. The entrance is marked by a guard tower – a clean-looking structure next to the canal that once bordered the camp.
There is a path, about 1.6 miles that wanders through desert. One walks the gravel path, imagining that this place contained so many Japanese living in the U.S. – including according to one sign, anyone with as little as 1/16th Japanese blood. While walking, I was glad for the slight rain and the clouds, the absence of the relentless heat this area often suffers in the summer.
One can see some remnants of buildings that were there when the Japanese-Americans were forced to live in this desolate location. One sign tells us that Minidoka was once the seventh largest town in Idaho, with some 13,000 people. As I walked the path through the camp, trying to imagine it populated by so many people, what I felt most strongly was a pervasive sense of emptiness. On most of the walk, all one sees is the recreated barbed wire fence, scrub brush, and vast distances.
The only reminder of the individuals who lived here are a couple of buildings, and markers where buildings once were, plus three or four places where visitors can press a button and hear the voice of a man or woman who was once a resident of Minidoka. These voices come out of small speakers, speaking about their lives in the camp, but the voices are often unheard in the vast desert. The wind is often louder than the recordings. A visit to Minidoka gives one a sense that so much of the story is missing, that so much of what people experienced here is lost.
I write this not to give a history lesson, but to pay tribute to the book that inspired an eight-hour drive from Portland to Minidoka: Jay Rubin’s The Sun Gods. Here is a novel that brings to life the world of this internment camp. He captures the setting of the camp, the harsh weather, the impersonal forces that led to the existence of the camp; most importantly, he captures life in Minidoka. It is Rubin’s ability to show this life that convinced me to make that eight-hour drive.
Note: there will be no spoilers in this blog post. I would like to write a more detailed tribute to this novel, about how accurate it is to the place and time, but for now I will be careful not to ruin anything. When one visits the place, one can envision the events of the novel, as if the existence of those fictional characters can help one to imagine those past lives in the present-day desert.
So far I have been referring to Minidoka as an internment camp, but it would be more accurately termed a concentration camp. “Ever since Pear Harbor, they have been doing strange things with words,” states one character (pg. 181). Not only is it a concentration camp, it is a deep stain on the so-called “greatest generation.” That is my opinion. Rubin, however, is never so blunt, never so didactic. The book is careful not to turn history into “an abstraction, a symbol” (357). Some characters have their philosophical moments, but the novel is content with depicting those characters, those moments, leaving the interpretation of events up to the reader.
My interpretation is that racism only exists as an abstraction. The most moral action a human can do is to keep things human, rather than abstract.
The book and this historical moment could both be read as an indictment of “Christian civilization” (285). This brings to mind another recent great novel, Joseph Boyden’s The Orenda. Both novels raise serious questions about Christianity and Western culture. Both offer an alternative view that includes more reverence for nature. Both do so by depicting lives, people. Neither is preachy. Perhaps that is the point.
One character of Rubin’s novel suggests that the abstraction of Christianity is “a vain attempt to make what was already holy seem holier” (260). Rubin and Boyden both powerfully depict the “holy” in everyday life.
In 2014 Boyden’s book was the winner of Canada Reads, a competition that chose “one novel that could change Canada.” If there were something called “The United States Reads,” I would nominate Jay Rubin’s The Sun Gods.