Book Review: A Road to Manzanar
In Farewell to Manzanar Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and James D. Houston have written a charming book that is both a memoir and a coming of age story for Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston. In 1942, when Jeanne was seven years old, she and her parents were sent to a Japanese interment camp in Manzanar, California. This was a common experience for people of Japanese heritage who lived along the West Coast of the United States after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. This book tells the reader about the camp and the people who lived there.
It is interesting to note that the title is Farewell to Manzanar, not farewell to Santa Monica or Long Beach two places where Jeanne and her family had homes before the war. With this title it is clear the Houstons are not writing about the injustice done to the Japanese, many of whom were United States citizens, by placing them in these camps. They are writing about two things. The first farewell to Manzanar occurred when the Wakatsuki family and other internees were able to leave Manzanar at the end of World War II. They were saying goodbye to their life in the camp at the same time as saying hello to their new life in post-war California. The second goodbye, and the one that occasioned the book occurred in 1972 when Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston, accompanied by her husband and their two adolescent daughters, returned to Manzanar.
Throughout most of the book Jeanne writes of her experiences in the camp. The camp was overcrowded at first and shabbily built because it had been built quickly after Pearl Harbor and no one knew how many Japanese people could be assigned to the camp. With time additional buildings were constructed, repairs were made and each family was assign room in one of the barracks to be turned into home. Increasingly throughout the war conditions living conditions were improved.
The life in Manzanar was made as much life a normal life for the residents as possible. Children attended school, people worked on their homes, grew victory gardens. Many of the men entered the United States Armed Forces and were stationed in Europe. People made friends, fell in love, married and had families. Some became ill, some died, some were happy, some were sad. It was as normal a life as possible under the circumstances.
When the Houstons visited Manzanar in 1972, very little evidence of the camp having ever existed remained, It had lain unused for almost thirty years, deserted buildings had been harvested for lumber and nature had begun to take back the site. As Jeanne walked through the Manzanar site with her husband she pointed out places and talked about events that had happened there and the people who had lived there. She found the large rock that had served as a step up into their quarters. In many ways the visit was the return visit of any adult who returns to a childhood home after living elsewhere for twenty years. The visit to Manzanar had a therapeutic effect on Jeanne. Revisiting the place where she had spent her live from age seven to ten and a half helped her come to terms with her experiences and gain closure. Finally Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston was able to say “Farewell to Manzanar.”
Farewell to Manzanar is a good book, probably a very good book. It is well written on a level that is easily understandable to people in adolescence and older. It is touching without being over sentimental. The book is a memoir, not a history book or autobiography. It does not aim to provide social criticism or encourage political activism; it is a memoir of the childhood of one young girl at a particularly difficult time in American History. It is because of the personal, non-political focus that the book has charm and is widely read almost sixty years after the camp closed and more than thirty years after the book was published.
Houston, J.W. & Houston J.D. Farewell to Manzanar. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1973.