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Farewell to Manzanar: Summary, Characters, Themes & Author

Instructor: Katherine Garner

Katie teaches middle school English/Language Arts and has a master's degree in Secondary English Education

This lesson provides a synopsis of Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston's memoir 'Farewell to Manzanar,' as well as descriptions of each of its major characters, an analysis of major themes, and biographical information about the author.

Synopsis

This memoir, or an account of a particular part of a person's life, gives readers a glimpse into the experiences of a Japanese American family living on the West Coast at the time of the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941. It tells the story of discrimination against Japanese Americans during World War II and the internment of over 110,000 American citizens of Japanese descent during the war.

Jeanne Wakatsuki's large family lived near the beach in southern California, where her father and older brothers were commercial fishermen. Shortly after Pearl Harbor, her father was taken away to a camp in Idaho. The rest of the family was sent various places before finally arriving in 1942 at Manzanar, the first internment camp constructed to move Japanese Americans further inland. Jeanne was only eight years old.

Conditions at the camp were cramped and unsanitary, resulting in a lot of disease. And though Jeanne's father was reunited with the family after months of being questioned in the camp in Idaho, his pride and sense of masculinity were damaged. He took to drinking constantly and became abusive toward his family.

Meanwhile, Jeanne and her siblings gained a sense of freedom at Manzanar, sharply contrasting with the breakdown of her parents' pride, values, and way of life. The structure of the camp encouraged children to spend time with their peers, while older members of families stayed together, often caring for the elderly and sick. As the camp developed, it built schools and provided extracurricular activities. Jeanne explored them until she found her talent in baton twirling, a skill that would help her make friends and a place for herself in the social life at camp and afterwards.

In 1945, when the government announced the camps would be closing, it wasn't as good of news as you might expect. Older people like Jeanne's parents were not prepared to start all over again. Nothing remained of their life before coming to the camp; their home, car, fishing boats, and valuables were all gone. Added to this was the discrimination many people still directed toward Japanese Americans.

Jeanne describes the difficulties her family had re-assimilating after the war and the conflict she felt between wanting to fit in with her peers and behaving the way her parents, especially her father, felt a Japanese woman should.

The book ends with Wakatsuki traveling back to the land where Manzanar once stood with her husband and children, looking for traces of her life there and feeling as if it was almost a dream. She finally feels ready to bid it farewell.

Major Characters

  • Jeanne Wakatsuki: Jeanne is the author and narrator. The story spans from when she is eight years old until she is a grown woman with a family of her own. She reflects on the impact her internment at Manzanar had on her childhood and on the rest of her family.
  • Ko Wakatsuki: Ko is Jeanne's father. She describes him as an extremely proud man whose family in Hiroshima descended from the samurai class. He is the most tragic figure of the book; Jeanne notes how being interned broke his spirit and damaged his pride, leaving him to battle alcoholism.
  • Riku Wakatsuki: Riku is Jeanne's mother. She was born in America, and she served as a nutritionist for people interned at Manzanar. After Ko's return from Idaho, she became the primary wage earner for the family and often acted as mediator between Ko and his children when there was a disagreement.
  • Woodrow 'Woody' Wakatsuki: Woody is the second oldest of the ten children in the family. He acts as head of the household while Ko is away and when he is incapable. He joins the army during World War II, partly to prove his loyalty to America, against his father's wishes. He has the opportunity to visit his father's aunt in Hiroshima after the war. She tells him they had presumed his father dead. Jeanne notes that as Woody became a strong adult, her father seemed to shrink.

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