Saturday, October 13, 2018

Connie Y. Chiang's "Nature Behind Barbed Wire"

Connie Y. Chiang is Professor of History and Environmental Studies at Bowdoin College.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Nature Behind Barbed Wire: An Environmental History of the Japanese American Incarceration, and reported the following:
Page 99 of Nature Behind Barbed Wire describes the agricultural labor problems in the Japanese American incarceration camps during World War II. The War Relocation Authority (WRA), a federal civilian agency, oversaw the administration of the ten camps and developed extensive agricultural programs at each one. The WRA’s goals were two-fold: to make the camps self-supporting and to provide worthwhile jobs for Japanese American detainees. However, as page 99 makes clear, WRA officials could not secure adequate Japanese American workers to maintain maximum production. At the behest of the WRA, many were leaving the camps to take outside employment. As a result, “the camp labor pool sometimes became drained at inopportune times in the planting and harvesting cycle.” Indeed, it was crucial to find workers at specific times of the year—when the environmental conditions were ideal for sowing and reaping.

Page 99 thus hints at the environmental underpinnings of the WRA’s agricultural challenges. The labor supply needed to align with nature—that is, the changes in the seasons. As I show elsewhere in this chapter, other environmental considerations affected farm production. Some Japanese Americans rejected agricultural work because of the harsh weather. They also found that their previous agricultural expertise—honed in more temperate locales along the Pacific Coast—was not applicable to the arid conditions in the camps. In fact, most of the camps were located in areas that were ill-suited for farming, with short growing seasons or poor soil. The environment, in other words, shaped the quantity and quality of farm labor. This interplay between humans and nature in the operation of the camps is central to the book’s narrative. Nature Behind Barbed Wire argues that the Japanese American incarceration was fundamentally an environmental story, shaped by the lands and waters of the Pacific Coast and the inland camps.
Learn more about Nature Behind Barbed Wire at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue