The narrator, seven-year-old Jeanne Wakatsuki, is living with her family in Long Beach, California in 1941, where her father is a fisherman. One Sunday in December, the fishing boats set off as usual, but soon turn around and head back to shore. The Japanese have attacked Pearl Harbor, and Papa knows immediately that things will be bad for Americans of Japanese descent.
Papa has been prevented from becoming a United States citizen because of immigration rules, and the fact that he has a fishing license puts him under further suspicion; the FBI begins picking up all such men, "for fear they (are) somehow making contact with enemy ships off the coast". Two weeks later, Papa is arrested. No one knows where he is being taken, or for how long. He had become "a man without a country...a man with no rights who look(s) exactly like the enemy". Jeanne does not see him again for a full year (Chapter 1).
Mama moves the family down to Terminal Island, where the older Wakatsuki children have already settled. In February, the Navy decides to clear Terminal Island completely, and the families living there are given forty-eight hours to clear out. With the help of a charitable organization, the Wakatsukis move to Boyle Heights. They, like their Japanese-American neighbors, feel helpless, but stoically accept what is happening to them in the dangerous atmosphere of anti-Orientalism that is sweeping the country. Soon, the order comes down that all Japanese on the western coast are to be evacuated to camps in the interior. The Wakatsukis are instructed to meet at a Buddhist church in Los Angeles, and from there they are transported by bus to Manzanar, in the remote Owens Valley.
Manzanar is made up of rows upon rows of rough barracks, and is surrounded by a barbed-wire fence. The unfinished barracks are divided into units sixteen by twenty feet large, with one bare bulb hanging from the ceiling. The twelve Wakatsukis are assigned two of these units. Each person receives a cot, a mattress cover to fill with straw, and two Army blankets, some of which are used to create partitions within the units to allow for a small measure of privacy. It is bitter cold and windy, but Jeanne is undaunted, excited because she will get to sleep with Mama (Chapter 2).
During the night, the unrelenting wind blows huge quantities of sand through the unfinished walls and floors of the barracks, and the Wakatsukis awaken covered with it. In Papa's absence, Jeanne's brother Woody takes a leadership role, securing brooms and other makeshift items so that the family can begin to make their unit more livable. Mama is angry and discouraged, but Woody's positive, take-charge attitude sets the tone for the others. With humor and a strong sense of endurance, the family will survive (Chapter 3).