Not long after Pearl Harbor, with fear of the Japanese approaching a national hysteria, the U.S. government rounded up all the West Coast residents of Japanese heritage and transported them to internment camps inland.

Some of the Japanese Americans were brought to a small Colorado town called Granada, to a camp called Amache.

More than half a century later, novelist Sandra Dallas, who lives in Denver, became intrigued by the camp, which today is just a field of concrete foundations. She wondered what life in the camp - and the town - would have been like.

Tallgrass, her eighth novel, is the answer Dallas came up with. Audio Renaissance has recorded it unabridged (8.5 hours, $29.95 on CD), with Lorelei King narrating.

The tale is sad, discomfiting.

Her fictional town, Ellis, seems mean to begin with.

A young woman is disowned by her parents for marrying a migrant worker. A hardware store owner all but enslaves his wife and daughter.

Two other young men are ne'er-do-wells who threaten little girls. One claims to have been disabled in the war, when he was actually discharged after injuring his leg in a fall from a bar stool.

There are layers upon layers of secrets and phoniness.

When the Japanese Americans settle into their crowded, dusty barracks, the town is resentful and suspicious.

Seething with anger and prejudice, they become convinced that "the Japs" will somehow spy on their church services and quilting group, the "Jolly Stitchers," and send vital information to Japan.

The main exception is the Stroud family, deeply moral and compassionate, who hire some of the newcomers to work in their sugar-beet fields and help out in the house when Mary, the mother, is weakened by a heart condition.

At the same time, their son Buddy is in the Army and is sent to the front in Germany.

It's not as simplistic as it may sound. This is a complex coming-of-age tale, told from the point of view of 13-year-old Rennie Stroud, who is trying to figure out what is right and what is wrong when many of the adults around her don't seem to have much grasp of it.

When one of Rennie's friends is raped and murdered, many in town are convinced "a Jap" did it and call for retribution.

Narrator Lorelei King is one of my favorite readers, but I'm not sure she hit a home run on this. I wished for more subtlety instead of the baby-talk girls and the deep-throated males.

But one of the wonderful things about the book - and especially the audio - is Dallas' use of language and how it evokes the era. The conversations of her characters sound like something out of Leave It to Beaver. I love that Loyal Stroud, whom Dallas patterned after her own father, says "by Dan" when he's amazed and sometimes calls his daughter "Squirt."

This was a time when women responded to tragedy by streaming into each other's homes with cakes, cookies and casseroles. Comically, there's even the inevitable woman whose cooking is all but inedible.

It would be nice to think we know better these days. But given the trouble that some Arabic-looking people have had since 9/11, I wonder.

Contact Inquirer staff writer Sandy Bauers at 215-854-5147 or sbauers@ phillynews.com. To read recent columns and hear audio clips, go to http://go.philly.com/sandybauers.