Getting a Sense of Place

Monday, September 22, 2014

Earlier this month I took a research trip for my middle-grade historical novel. The story takes place during World War II, and my protagonist lives in Berkeley, California when the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor. She has a Japanese father and a Caucasian mother, but even 1/16th Japanese blood would have been enough to send her to Tanforan Assembly Center (a converted racetrack) and Topaz War Relocation Center. 

I wanted to do on-site visits, but I had a significant problem. Tanforan is now a two-level shopping mall, and Topaz is open desert. That means I had to (and did) get most of my knowledge about both from reading memoirs. Even so, visiting added a sense of place that I couldn’t get from books. 

The books told me that Topaz was isolated and desolate. Being there made it real. It took hours of driving through mountains and deserts to get to Delta, Utah, which was the closest town, and then it took another half hour from there. The isolation suffocated me. The residents of Topaz spent two nights and a day on a train to reach it, with each mile taking them farther away from their beloved San Francisco. After transferring to a bus at Delta, they finally arrived at their destination to find nothing but rows and rows of tar-papered barracks in the middle of nowhere. Think how the isolation must have affected people who were born and raised in a major metropolitan area.  

Then there was the size. I already knew that the residential area was a mile square, but that was just a number until I walked and drove it. Now I can’t imagine how they managed to cram 8,000 people, two elementary schools, a high school, a hospital, and a number of offices in such a small space. More suffocation. 

Topaz was disassembled after the war, and there is very little left at the site. However, part of the original barbed-wire fence still stands, and it confirmed the impression I got from my reading. As you can see from the picture, there was plenty of space to crawl through, and the residents often did. Not to escape, though. The War Relocation Authority used the surrounding land to grow crops and raise animals to feed the people in the camp, and many of the residents worked outside the fence in the agricultural areas. Although the administration discouraged it and the Topaz Times contained frequent pleas not to climb through the fence, many residents used that route as a shortcut to their jobs. (And no, the fence was not electrified.) 

Dust storms were a frequent experience for the Japanese Americans who lived in Topaz and other desert camps. Crazy as it may seem, I wanted to experience one while I was there. Unfortunately, it had rained the night before so the dust stayed put. Driving through Utah and Nevada the next day, however, we did see a number of dust clouds in the distance. 

At Tanforan, the inhabitants would have felt a different kind of isolation. They were in the middle of a bustling metropolitan area that was closed to them. Still, during the five months they lived there in horse stalls or barracks with gaping holes in the walls, at least they were still in their home state of California. And they were close enough that their Caucasian friends could visit them occasionally. 

The building in the middle of this picture is the current BART station. Imagine that it is the grandstand roof and you are sitting there 72 years ago, as many of the residents did. They could see civilization all around them. 

From our hotel near Berkeley, it took a hotel shuttle, a bus, and the BART (with one transfer) to get to San Pedro, where Tanforan is. It also took about 2 ½ hours. On the way back, every connection came right away, and even the hotel shuttle came just as we were getting ready to call for it, so the return trip took only 1½ hours. The Japanese Americans made the trip by bus and with no stops or connections, but they also had to contend with traffic. So I’m assuming that it took them at least two hours, and probably much longer. Hours filled with apprehension and uncertainty.
We did the trip backwards for practical reasons, but at least we did it.
Writers can’t always visit their locales, but they should if they can.
I’m glad I did.

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