Journey to Topaz has three main settings: Yuki's home in Berkeley, the camp at the Tanforan Race Track, and the camp at Topaz. The story begins in the first week of December 1941, with Yuki eagerly anticipating Christmas. Her family's rented home has enough room for Yuki's mother to entertain guests and for Yuki, her brother Ken, and their parents to live comfortably. It has a backyard for Yuki's dog Pepper and a fishpond that is the home of a big gray carp. Mr. Sakane, Yuki's father, tends a nice garden. Yuki and her family have many friends in their neighborhood; they are well-established within the community.
After her comfortable years growing up in Berkeley, Yuki finds the Tanforan Race Track—renamed the Tanforan Assembly Center—a shock. One of fifteen such assembly centers hastily set up to house the 110,000 Japanese-Americans of the West Coast, Tanforan is bleak and crowded. Yuki is momentarily impressed when she hears that her family has been assigned "Barrack 16, Apartment 40," but the apartment turns out to be a hastily converted horse stall. Poor sanitation, noisy stalls, and bland food plague the camp. Schooling is nearly impossible. Furthermore, Mr. Sakane has been taken away for interrogation and cannot be with his family. Ever resourceful, Yuki, Ken, and their mother manage to make do with what little they have, and Yuki even makes a new friend of Emiko—a girl in a neighboring stall. Topaz, the Central Utah War Relocation Center, is a dry and remote prison camp with armed guards who will shoot anyone who tries to escape. A mile square, the camp consists of forty-two blocks and twelve barracks in each block. The buildings are covered with black tarpaper, the air is full of dust, and people in the camp feel isolated from the world. Even so, the authorities set up schools for youngsters and allow some college-age youngsters to attend East Coast schools and some adults to work in Salt Lake City. These small opportunities to be productive and to learn offer some hope to the unhappy residents of Topaz.
The language of Journey to Topaz is spare and clear. The book emphasizes strong images rather than ornate language. This style is most effective in the vividly described contrast between the idyllic setting of the Sakanes' home and the stark environment of Tanforan and Topaz. The Sakanes' home seems warm and settled. Yuki has her dog in the back yard, and she is friends with a curious fish in the pond. Her father's garden is well kept and admired by the neighbors. Everything about the home suggests that Yuki's family is a comfortable part of the middle-class neighborhood.
On the other hand, the Tanforan Assembly Center is anything but comfortable and settled, although the Sakanes try hard to make their converted horse stall resemble a home. Confused and unhappy people crowd Tanforan; everywhere Yuki looks are fences that keep the internees from enjoying freedom and force them to squeeze together. The buildings are tattered, and many are unfinished.
As bad as Tanforan is, the images of the Central Utah War Relocation Center at Topaz are even more alien to the middle-class life Yuki has lost. The hot and dusty expanse of the desert seems to spread endlessly in every direction beyond the fences. It is a place hostile to human beings; this point is made clear by Yuki's experience in one of the many windstorms that sweep across the desert: "The wind now lifted great masses of sand from the ground and flung it into the air with such fury that Yuki could no longer see the barracks of the nearest block. Pebbles stung her legs, and her breath came in short gulping gasps. Yuki felt smothered, and her heart began to pound as she felt terror rising inside of her." Such striking images show Topaz to be a wretched place. The black tarred barracks add to the picture of a place unfit for living.
The illustrations by Donald Carrick are also notable. Starkly black and white, they emphasize the emotions of a captured moment. In the dust...
(The entire section is 1,967 words.)