Sunday, March 20, 2011

Farewell to Manzanar

By Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and James D. Houston

Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston used to be just Jeanne Wakatsuki, a Japanese-American girl in California, who, because of her Japanese ancestry was sent with her family in 1942 to live in the internment camp Manzanar in Owens Valley, California. Jean was American through-and-through, but because of her Japanese family name and Japanese looks, she and her family, along with thousands of other Japanese-American people were illegally imprisoned because wartime hysteria trumped reason and law.

Jeanne is the youngest child. When the book begins, she is seven- she has two older brothers, Bill, Woody, and Ray, sisters Lillian, May and Kiyo. One night, her father comes home and begins to burn the keepsakes he had brought with him from Japan as a young man- she can’t understand why, but she is aware that the FBI is ransacking the homes of her neighbors and will ransack hers, too. When they finally come, Jeanne’s father is arrested and is not seen again by the family for a year.

Later, when Jeanne goes to school, she realizes that her teacher is outwardly hostile toward her, and while she can’t quite understand the reason behind it, she knows it’s because she looks like the enemy- it’s almost, but not quite, a relief to be sent away. They are bussed inland to Manzanar, where they are to live in Block 16- a pine building lined

with tarpaper. Jeanne’s mother takes a job as a dietician and makes a little extra money, her brother Woody a job as a carpenter. Jeanne plays and goes to school.

Jeanne’s father is imprisoned and sends letters just a few times a month, with words and phrases redacted by censors. Jeanne remembers him negatively- as a braggart, somewhat abusive, and certainly an alcoholic. Others saw him differently, though- he was skilled with his hands, knew many crafts, and unlike many Issei (Native-born Japanese immigrants), he spoke English as fluently as Japanese (Jeanne is nissei- i.e. second generation, and any children of hers are sansei).

Farewell to Manzanar culminates with Jeanne’s post-war experiences. When she leaves the camp, by this time, in her own right a “tween” she knows that she is different, and that people will continue to see her as an enemy. The result is that she has cripplingly low self-esteem and while she maintains good grades and has friends, in the back of her mind is the constant memory of her youthful imprisonment and the nagging feeling that people disapprove of her because she is of Japanese descent. Finally, as an adult, she comes to term with who she is and eventually visits Manzanar to come to terms with it.

Here's a photo of Manzanar for Perspective:

Farewell to Manzanar was writte

n in 1973 during a time when the United States was still fairly culturally insular, so for culturally sensitive adult readers, the book explains issues in too much depth, but for tween readers who may be completely unaware that there was a time in American history when people were imprisoned in camps, the explanations are helpful. This book is a good choice for introducing to young readers that the United States has not always been as equal as purported. I highly recommend this for older tweens.

I chose this book in spite of a lack of awards- I chose it because it is widely used in schools, particularly on the west coast. As I was reading it, a senior in high school told me she had read it for school.

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