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A high school football team’s wartime resistance

In ‘The Eagles of Heart Mountain,’ Bradford Pearson renders the lives of incarcerated Japanese Americans during World War II in three dimensions.

By Reid Singer

Most books about war center on heroes. By choosing a few actors and following their progress, a writer can briefly untangle the decisions that drove the course of events, bringing clarity and purpose to what might have been a senseless trauma. This approach gives tangible freedom and agency to ordinary people who might not have been in charge. It is an innately satisfying way to talk about history, and remarkably similar to the way we talk about sports. Who gets to be the hero, though, remains an open question. In The Eagles of Heart Mountain: A True Story of Football, Incarceration, and Resistance in World War II America, journalist Bradford Pearson turns that lens on a group under persecution.

Between 1942 and 1946, the United States War Department imprisoned over 110,000 Americans of Japanese descent under Executive Order 9066, signed by Franklin Roosevelt. Men, women and children were forced to live in in “relocation” camps around the Western U.S.; but, despite this trauma, they didn’t necessarily lose all meaningful control over their own lives. By focusing on an obscure but dramatic aspect of one camp, Pearson crafts a rich and dignified portrayal of the incarcerated Americans, the kind many victims rarely receive. We find that while their rights were erased, their humanity was not.

At Heart Mountain War Relocation Center, near Cody, Wyoming, the camp’s high school had a football team, nicknamed the Eagles. And they were really, really good. From newspaper clippings and interviews with surviving family members, Pearson is able to describe practically every pass and run the team made. He is a knowledgeable fan of the game, and his nuanced and occasionally thrilling account allows readers to see the Eagles’ success as a genuine source of hope and strength for other prisoners.

Fans crowd around the field during a football game at Heart Mountain Relocation Center, in Wyoming. National Archives Catalogue

See the rest of the review here: https://www.hcn.org/issues/53.1-1/ideas-books-a-high-school-football-teams-wartime-resistance

Reid Singer is a journalist and former editor at Outside, whose work has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, Smithsonian, and SB Nation. He lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

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High Country News

High Country News

Working to inform and inspire people — through in-depth journalism — to act on behalf of the West’s diverse natural and human communities.