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Farewell To Manzanar by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston-Free Study Guide
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SHORT PLOT/CHAPTER SUMMARY (Synopsis)

Farewell to Manzanar is a straightforward, autobiographical tale. The text opens with a foreword in which the main character/narrator/author reveals her present position. She is an adult, telling about events that happened to her as a child. The years have given her both education and perspective, enabling her to talk about the difficult subject of her childhood. This introduction frames the memoir, which unfolds, novel-like, afterward.

The story is about Jeanne Wakatsuki and her family, composed of her mother, father, and nine siblings. Her parents are first-generation Japanese immigrants, called Issei. The children are called Nisei, because they are natural American citizens and second-generation Japanese. The story begins on a weekend in December 1941. The Wakatsuki women stand waving good-bye to their husbands, who are fishermen heading out to sea. Suddenly, the men return to shore, and a cannery worker announces that the Japanese have bombed Pearl Harbor. The news that their native country has bombed their new country comes as a great shock to Mama and Papa Wakatsuki. They go home to destroy relics from Japan, lest their ties cause them trouble.

After America becomes involved in World War II, Ko Wakatsuki is arrested on false charges of treason for selling oil to the Japanese. The family is forced to move from their home to Terminal Island, where the oldest son Woody lives. Eventually, President Roosevelt issues an Executive Order authorizing the detainment of Japanese-Americans in concentration-style camps. After various attempts at relocating, Mama Wakatsuki and her children are sent to one of these camps, called Manzanar. They are given a barrack to share among the large family of twelve. The floor is made of planks with large knotholes. The accommodations are shabby and unclean, and armed guards surround the camps.


Papa Wakatsuki soon joins them, but his false imprisonment has left him bitter and defeated. He has always been a very proud man, a descendant of a once-noble family of Samurai. Embarrassed by his arrest and present situation, Ko turns to alcohol to forget the dishonor. Despite his obvious flaws of pride and arrogance, he is a good man who has many skills. Having come to the United States in search of the American Dream, he is horrified to be imprisoned in a concentration camp. The situation nearly destroys him.

The atmosphere of the camp slowly erodes the family unit. Papa drinks too much and often abuses Mama. The older siblings take jobs and move to other places in and outside the camp. The younger children amuse themselves by running around the barracks without supervision. Slowly, however, all of the Wakatsukis become accustomed to their lives in Manzanar.

Then in February of 1943, the detained Japanese-Americans are ordered to sign a Loyalty Oath to America or be sent back to Japan. The oath swears allegiance to the United States and a willingness to fight Japan in the war if necessary. After lengthy arguments with his father, Woody fills out the form. Reluctantly, Papa realizes he too must sign. He feels he is no longer Japanese, for his life in his native country is only a distant memory.

In the spring, the Wakatsukis are moved to a new barracks, Block 28, where they have more space; as a result, they are able to make their accommodations more livable. Manzanar itself becomes a comfortable, almost "normal" society for them. There are recreational programs for the children, dance classes and baton twirling lessons for the girls and field trips for all. The Wakatsuki children also participate in clubs and theater performances. Manzanar becomes an acceptable world of its own.

Just as the Wakatsukis begin to feel settled and comfortable, the war ends. The government closes down the Japanese detention camps, leaving the detained Japanese-Americans homeless and poor. They are forced to return to a society that does not trust them or want them around. To make matters worse, they lost everything when they were taken away to the camp; they now have nothing of their own.

Woody decides to travel back to Japan to visit his surviving relatives in Hiroshima. The trip is cathartic for him, for he comes to understand his relationship to his past and to accept his present identity. Jeanne's life, however, is not so easy. Her adolescence is marred by confusion over the desire to act American and the obvious Japanese heritage that separates her from her peers. Additionally, she is exposed to racial prejudice against Japanese, and she internalizes them, blaming herself

The memoir ends thirty years later, with Jeanne as an adult and a mother. She returns to Manzanar with her husband and three children. In many respects, the visit is similar to Woody's visit to Hiroshima; it helps Jeanne come to terms with her past and accept them as an integral part of her person. She writes the novel as a way of explaining the affects of the past on the person she has become.

THEMES

Racial prejudice, the strain of war, and the gradual decline of the family are all issues with grave thematic import in the memoir. The impact of these weighty issues on a young girl's adolescence is the focus of the text, and the sole reason for its existence.

MOOD

The mood of the memoir is reflective. In re-living her past, Jeanne Wakatsuki is objective, yet sympathetic. Her recollections of her childhood are a mature attempt to understand and make sense of the past events that have shaped her life. Within the book, there are some powerfully moving moments, such as when Papa Wakatsuki sings the Japanese anthems, when Aunt Toyo weeps at Woody's door and when an adult Jeanne wanders around the remains of Manzanar.

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