Farewell to Manzanar is notably unpretentious and even-tempered in tone, at the same time that it portrays one of the more shameful episodes of twentieth century American history. The memoir, written by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and James D. Houston, who were married, is both a factual account of life under the restrictions of a World War II relocation camp and the story of a young woman’s quest for her real identity. The latter effort is made more complicated by her Japanese heritage and by other people’s distrust of that heritage. The memoir remains a popular text for secondary school students.
The story is told mostly in chronological order, in the narrator’s first-person voice. The exceptions are three chapters interspersed with the rest of the text, relating events that occurred to other family members: One, “Fort Lincoln: An Interview,” is a dialogue of Ko’s interrogation by a young military officer who is trying to classify the older man as a security risk. Two, “The Reservoir Shack,” tells of an encounter between a guard unit made up of detainees—led by Jeanne’s brother-in-law, Kaz—and an excitable group of military police officers. Fortunately, no one comes to blows in the standoff. The third, “Ka-ke, Near Hiroshima, April 1946,” describes Woody’s meeting with his great-aunt, a meeting that gives him new insights into Japanese culture and his father’s past. These episodes deepen and enrich the main narrative.
Although Farewell to Manzanar is primarily Jeanne’s story, in some ways it is Ko’s story, too. The author says that while Manzanar is where her life began, her father’s life, in effect, had ended there. Actually, Ko lived for quite a few years after Manzanar, but the internment destroyed his self-esteem and his zest for life. Ko is a bigger-than-life person, full of swagger and enthusiasm and with unusual skills and strong opinions. He also has a strong entrepreneurial spirit. In the book, he becomes an unforgettable character.
The themes of injustice, prejudice, and fear of the “other” subtly underlie the whole experience, although the authors never...
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