This was perhaps not the optimum time to be reading The Eagles of Heart Mountain: a true story of football, incarceration, and resistance in World War II America. I expected a book of triumph over adversity in the same order as Brown’s The Boys in The Boat. Not much of a football afficionado, I had planned to skim the book to vet it as a gift for a Japanese-American friend who lives near Heart Mountain.
Upon cracking the cover, instead of a narrative about resilient athletes, I got sucked into a detailed portrait of white privilege—an in-depth history lesson about blatant Caucasian American hubris, racism, ignorance, and rumor-mongering that stained some of this country’s political figures and heroes of the past: Warren Delano Sr, the great grandfather of Franklin Delano Roosevelt; Franklin Roosevelt himself; General John DeWitt; Karl Bendetson, progeny of Lithuanian Jews; California attorney general Earl Warren, destined to become chief justice of the Supreme Court; among a long list of other players on the field of hatred and abuse.
To read this book during a month in which an armed insurrection lead by a morally bankrupt American President, bolstered by an unending cadre of crooked, short-sighted, racist, sexist, politicians and deal makers tested my emotional state. Author Pearson, a journalist by trade, pulls no punches in his choice of words. What our history books call “relocation centers,” Pearson refers to as what they are—Concentration Camps. Pearson’s investigative research skills shone through in the diligent research he performed before setting pen to paper.
The first half of the book delves deeply into the hows, whys, and wheres of America’s incarceration of Japanese immigrants and American citizens of Japanese ancestry. I had always assumed that this debacle was a hasty and poorly thought out reaction to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. But Pearl Harbor was just the final straw in a lengthy effort to disenfranchise Japanese Americans. About halfway through the book, Pearson begins fleshing out the lives and personalities of Japanese athletes—the group of young men from up and down the west coast, who came together during the frigid winter in Heart Mountain Concentration Camp to participate in sports. In this section Pearson probes the high school football intrigues of small western towns and the extraordinary obstacles a rag tag team of incarcerated, Japanese-American young men had to overcome to excel at a game most of them had never played before.
The last quarter of the book explores the football narrative in greater detail. There are many characters and a lot of football jargon that was lost on me. My attention flagged in this part, but that is due to my lack of passion for sports. It was also during this section that I had the most difficulty tracking a timeline that transitions backwards and forwards between the years of 1941–45. This was a result of the author describing the life trajectory of each of the young football players as they are featured in the narrative.
For me, what stands out most in this story, is the ugly racism and hypocrisy of a “government imprisoning 120,000 Japanese Americans only to ask them a year later to pick up a gun and die for the same government.” In opposition to her husband and anti-Japanese sentiment, Mrs. Roosevelt wrote a telling truth about why Japanese Americans were treated like dogs. “This happened because, in one part of our country (the west coast), they were feared as competitors, and the rest of our country knew them so little and cared so little about them that they did not even think about the principle that we in this country believe in: that of equal rights for all human beings.”
I simply can’t get past how relevant that statement is to what is happening in America 80 years later.