‘A heuristic model’ for historians to emulate with other camps

JAPANESE AMERICANS AT HEART MOUNTAIN: Networks, Power, and Everyday Life

By Saara Kekki (Norman, Okla.: University of Oklahoma Press, 2022, 246 pp., $39.95, hardcover)

Having read in Saara Kekki’s Acknowledgements within the book under review that its contents had been favorably vetted by three historians of the Japanese American World War II experience that I greatly admire (Eric Muller, Greg Robinson and Paul Spickard), and having observed that the latter two of these historical scholars had provided promotional comments on the book’s cover attesting to the work’s seminal significance, I was utterly thrilled with the fortuitous opportunity to read and review “Japanese Americans at Heart Mountain.” This was especially the case because the Heart Mountain concentration camp had figured so largely in my own published scholarship, particularly in recent years. On the other hand, my enthusiasm relative to Kekki’s study was dampened somewhat when I discovered that it was driven by the methodology of dynamic network analysis, something she explains in detail in a concluding appendix that, I admit, largely eluded my quantitative-and-computer-challenged comprehension. As a consequence, I determined to focus my attention here less on Kekki’s methodology per se than on the fruits of the findings it generated relative to the Heart Mountain experience.

Although Kekki’s network analysis is complemented by her use of traditional historical sources and method such as letters, diaries, government reports and oral histories, her foremost concern is with what she characterizes as “big data,” which in respect to a historical dataset is one she defines as “too large for an individual researcher to process manually” (p. 5). In this connection, her model for assessing the networks at Heart Mountain is based on a trio of substantial datasets: (1) the responses to form 26, which the War Relocation Authority (WRA) received from all 10,000 or so camp inmates upon entry; (2) the so-called “final roster,” which accounted the movement of inmates from camp for indefinite leaves such as education and employment and final destinations; and (3) the content of the camp newspaper, the Heart Mountain Sentinel. Utilizing these three networks, Kekki, a post-doctoral researcher at Finland’s University of Helsinki, rivets her primary attention on “manifestations of power, agency, and resistance” (p. 1) within the Heart Mountain incarcerated community. Although granting that such themes have been typically studied by historical researchers through narrative documents, Kekki argues that historical big data and dynamic network analysis can “help us see trends and changes in a community that has [previously] received little scholarly attention” (p. 9).

The 10 chapters comprising the body of Kekki’s artfully written, carefully reasoned and richly documented book all testify to the truth of her promissory note, although the chapter that most resonated with me owing to my particular research emphasis upon inmate resistance activity in Heart Mountain and the other camps was Chapter 8: “Disobedience behind Barbed Wire: Passive and Active Resistance.” It vivified for me the laundry list of claims Kekki makes for the power of dynamic network analysis in her epilogue (“Networks of Power and the Power of Networks”), but most especially her culminating one: “The clear understanding that historical events are not just a series of actions taken by individual ‘great men.’” (p. 170)

Saara Kekki has provided a heuristic model for future historical scholars to emulate with respect to the nine other WRA camps.

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