Written by Jeanne W. Houston and James W. Houston, Farewell to Manzanar is an autobiography of their early childhood spent in confinement of wartime in Manzanar, a Japanese-American internment camp. These camps were set up right after the Japanese attack the Pearl Harbor that made the country the state’s enemy. Hence, anyone from a lineage of the Japanese descent was seen from a criminalized perspective and confined in an enclosed area under high monitoring and less-than-standard living conditions.
The story opens with the attack on Pearl Harbor. Jeane becomes worried since her father and brother were out for fishing but they come back as soon as they left. It is a time of terror as America has officially declared war with Japan and the people of Japanese descent living in America realize that it is going to lead to their downfall. In no time, the government issues an order, asking all Japanese-Americans living in the west to evacuate their homes and settle in these internment camps against their will. Jeanne’s father, Ko, is arrested for allegedly supplying oil to Japanese ships and the FBI has him imprisoned in North Dakota. The whole process of moving into the camp is shown to be tiring and pain inducing as there are so many families entering at the same time and the government has to keep accurate records of the families living inside each of these camps. During the entire process of settling inside the camp, Jeanne’s family moves to her brother’s house in Long beach for the time being. Jeanne experiences a cultural shock when she moves in with so many Japanese people. The place where she lived before, Santa Monica, was populated with people of various ethnic descents, hence she had not been previously exposed to Japanese culture so strongly. Even most of her practices were predominantly American. They move to Boyle Heights for a short period of time before permanently settling in Manzanar.
The first year in the camp is a mess. Nothing is organized and living conditions are beyond worse. Since the government is clueless as to how to handle Japanese-Americans, they were hardly bothered about providing better supplies of food, water and daily necessities. Camp life, not just for Jeanne, but also for everyone who had to live there, is exhausting and trying. There were too many people who had been pushed to live together, which caused lack of space to sleep, lack of privacy and broken sewage systems. There are regular dust storms that would continually ruin their settlements. Sicknesses like diarrhea spread very fast due to contaminated water and extremely distasteful food. At the end of the day, they decided to figure out how they would run the camps instead of leaving it to a government that was clearly not interested in providing for them at all. Jeanne’s father, Ko, returns to his family in the year 1942. Due to the imprisonment, Ko felt humiliated and distorted so he spent most of his time drinking, being anti-social and illogical, all the while fueling his anger. The other settlers are under the impression that there is a spy from the government’s side living with them, an assumption which makes Ko feel disloyal and extremely humiliated. The family eventually becomes very disorderly due to the increasing tensions with the addition of the unfavorable living conditions.
Through these catastrophes, Jeanne has to keep living her life. Most of the times, she ignores family fights and spends time in her room. As the adults are so busy with keeping order in this contained space and making everything work, the kids have to take care of themselves such as going to school, doing their chores etc. This makes Jeanne become more independent.
In time, things start to fall into place especially after the family relocates to Block 28. The schools settled there have tons of activities and offer engrossing curriculums, where the kids are able to enroll and keep themselves occupied. The women also find jobs even though they are seriously low paid. Ko also start to become a little more optimistic after finding interest in the pear cultivation. People start to build their own roads, gardens, farms, buildings and etc. They gradually make the place more habitable for themselves. Living conditions that were once impossible to think of living in have now turned 360 degrees due to all the efforts put in by the people in the camps. Jeanne eventually finds life more interesting in the form of her school activities where she could learn ballet, participate in glee club and volunteer in yearbook.
Being an ethnic minority in America and now having an enemy identification in their names requires Japanese-Americans to swear allegiance to America and only America. This is a very common scenario where the minority is usually suspected for disloyalty since they do not make up a nation state’s majority. A nation-state’s majority is what usually defines the national identity and anything other that this identity has to prove their loyalty, for multiple times over. The Loyalty Oath asks the Japanese to swear their loyalty to America only and leave the identity of Japan behind by joining in for the war and fight from the American side. This forced oath leaves many families shattered including Jeanne’s. Her brother accepts all the conditions and even signs up to fight in the war. Meanwhile her father refuses to heed to the oath because he considers this America’s way of torturing them even more. However, in the end, her father has to consent to all these orders, which makes him appear a traitor to Japan in the eyes of the elders. Soon enough, the FBI comes to the camps and asks the settlers to go back to their homes. However, most of the people do not wish to leave because after such a long period of time, they have nowhere to go back to. Most of the elderly people had given up their homes and it is hard to find jobs outside now that they have been labeled an enemy identity. Jeanne’s siblings suggest moving to a place where there will be more jobs available and they will not have to face any anti-Japanese violence, which undoubtedly have gone up after the attack. However, her parents wish to stay back until the feds instruct them to a particular location, as that would be the safest option. But as more time passes by, the feds do nothing and Ko decides to take matters in his own hands. He shifts the whole family back to Long Beach in a housing project with a quite spacious interior (better than one in the camps, of course). However, because Ko is still without a job and Jeanne’s mother is paid very low, life is still a huge struggle for Jeanne and her family.
Jeanne has to enroll into a school where she is not only seen as the new kid but also the kid who looks different from Americans, even though she is technically a real American. During her time trying to fit into a different school, she makes friends with a white girl who lives in the same housing project. She is restricted from joining girl’s scout because of her Japanese heritage. She struggles with finding out her own identity and tries to settle into something solid. In high school, the first three years are very challenging for Jeanne as she watches her best friend being easily accepted because she is white whereas Jeanne is always treated as the outcast because of her race. In the final year, Jeanne’s family moves to San Jose. There, she finally finds herself and even gets voted as a carnival queen. This starts to give her a sense of belonging. However, her Japanese family does not her permit her to accept the crown. Hence, Jeanne has to give up the opportunity and she starts to feel at loss again, torn between her culture and who she really is. After the family moves again to Santa Clara Valley where her father goes back to cultivating strawberries, Jeanne learns to rebel against her family’s strict cultural background in order to find her own identity. This time when she is elected as a homecoming queen she decides to not yield to her cultural identity.
In the end of the book, it shows Jeanne going back to Manzanar with her husband and kids. It was a sanctuary that was made from dirt and it had given her a true sense of belonging. She noticed many things still present, like the cleared out pathways and rock gardens that were made by the people in camps and recalls her life there. She recalls the day her father had bought the car to take them back to Long beach after the feds had asked them to evacuate. The voices of the people in Manzanar ring in her ears as she remembers her time around the people who had made her feel home. She remembers her deceased parents’ struggles during all the resettlements that had taken place.