Critical Context

Farewell to Manzanar, which was not written specifically for a young adult audience, is an articulate narrative that documents the wartime experience of a whole segment of American society. The book provides a firsthand exploration of the Japanese-American relocation program from the point of view of a young person, and in that respect alone it has become a significant contribution to the literature of war, not unlike Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl (1947). Farewell to Manzanar is perhaps all the more memorable because it relates unbelievable events that took place on the American home front, all in the name of national security.

The autobiography is significant, too, because it explores the ethnicity of the Japanese-American population at a crucial time. The Wakatsuki family’s relocation experience serves as a case study of other first-generation and second-generation Japanese families on the West Coast, and it provides a basis for understanding the complexities of a pluralistic society.

Perhaps the book’s greatest appeal for young adult readers, however, is found in Houston’s unsettling but finally successful search for an identity. Throughout Farewell to Manzanar, she longs for acceptance—by her nation, by her peers, by her family, and, ultimately, by herself. She describes the imposed shame and guilt that she bore by being born Japanese, and she recalls her unsuccessful attempts to throw off her heritage as a young adult. For many years, she says, she tried to forget her family’s experiences at Manzanar and thus erase her “sense of unworthiness.” Yet it was not until she returned to the deserted camp as an adult and confronted the many sorrowful and joyful voices of the past that she was able to admit that it was at Manzanar “that my own life really began.”