When Jeanne Wakatsuki was seven years old, she and her family, along with thousands of other Japanese Americans, were forced to move into Manzanar, an internment camp in Owens Valley, California. They lived at Manzanar from 1942 to 1945, ostensibly to prevent them from committing acts of sabotage and treason against the United States. This memoir, which Jeanne (now Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston) wrote with her husband, James D. Houston, describes her years in the camp and the years after.
The family’s time at Manzanar was difficult in all the ways you might expect. They were forced to live in crowded conditions and with limited privacy. When they first arrived, the barracks weren’t adequately sealed, so the desert dust blew in through the floorboards and covered everything. The bathrooms did not have barriers between the toilets. (Jeanne recalls that one woman brought a huge box with her to the bathroom to place around the toilet.) The food, while sufficient, was poorly prepared and did not take Japanese tastes into account. Many were disgusted at the idea of eating canned apricots over white rice, which was served as dessert on their first night. They joked that breakfast would be hotcakes with soy sauce or rice with Log Cabin syrup and butter.
The poor physical conditions improved over the years, and they were certainly never as dire as those in concentration camps and work camps in Europe. At Manzanar, people could choose to work, or not, and those who worked earned a wage. Jeanne’s mother got a job as a dietician, which was one of the better-paying jobs in the camp. After the first year, the camp got a school, and children could take lessons in ballet and baton-twirling, among other things. The difficulty of life at Manzanar had less to do with physical discomfort than with psychological trauma.
Even before Jeanne’s family arrived at Manzanar, Americans’ prejudice against the Japanese were taking a toll. Her father had been arrested on suspicion of using his fishing boat to take barrels of oil to Japanese submarines off the coast of California. One of the most heart-breaking sections of the book is a transcript of an interrogation session he underwent while at a prison camp in Fort Lincoln. (Whether it’s an actual transcript or a reimagining of the interview isn’t clear.) At this point, Jeanne’s father had lived in America for 38 years; he’d never been back to Japan, although he bore no ill will toward his former home. Japanese immigrants were not allowed to become U.S. citizens at that time, but he had had 10 children, all of whom were citizens, having been born here. He told the interrogator that the war made him sad for both countries. When the interrogator tried to press him to say whose side he was on, he answered,
When your mother and your father are having a fight, do you want them to kill each other? Or do you just want them to stop fighting?
Jeanne’s father was still at the prison camp when the rest of the family went to Manzanar. When he finally joined them, it was clear that something inside him had broken. He took to drinking, and Jeanne witnessed fights between her parents that in former days, if they occurred, would have been behind closed doors. But now there were no doors to close.
Camp life caused all kinds of rifts in family life. Instead of eating together in their own homes, families ate in a mess hall, and children tended to eat with friends instead of relatives. Eventually, Jeanne’s family, like so many other American families, was broken up by the war itself, when one of her brothers was drafted. (Yes, that’s right. These Japanese-Americans could not be trusted with their freedom, but they could be trusted to die for the country that imprisoned them.)
Even after the family left Manzanar, life in post-War, post-internment America was difficult. Jeanne had difficulty fitting in at school. Her teen years involved a lot of the same identity struggles that many young women go through, such as learning to deal with her own sexuality and the desire to break free from disapproving parents who may actually know best. But being a Japanese American complicated all these struggles.
Before reading this book, I knew little more than the basic facts about the Japanese-American internment camps, which is to say that I knew of their existence and not much else. This book was a pretty good place to start in filling in the gaps, but it is focused almost entirely on one person’s experience, filtered through memory, with some research support. How typical her experience was is hard to say. But it’s clear that this isn’t meant to be a comprehensive study of life at Manzanar.
At my library, Farewell to Manzanar is shelved in the children’s nonfiction section, but adults interested in the topic are likely to find it worthwhile. I thought the book was stronger in the first half, which covered the months leading up to the internment and the first year there. I also was interested in Jeanne’s recollections of her final months in the camp, when her parents were so ambivalent about leaving. But several years at the camp were a blur in Jeanne’s memory, and the narrative suffers a bit from that blurred quality. That’s a minor problem, and it passes. Overall, this book was a good way to get some small picture of Japanese internment camps. It’s important for Americans to remember this mistake from our history, in hopes that we can avoid repeating it.