Telling her story in first person, Jeanne the writer, in collaboration with her husband James, presents an uncluttered reminiscence of World War II. Unlike young Caucasian children of the era, Jeanne the character joins thousands of Japanese-American youngsters in confronting the difficulties of growing up during worldwide hostilities. The siege mentality creates a bond among an easily identified non-Caucasian people who suffer silent banishment, far from population centers on the ragged edge of California's wasteland. Out of the range of neighborhood prejudice, they enjoy a safe bondage made bearable by the unity of fellow Japanese Americans. The fact that decades pass before judicial authorities acknowledge the wrong done to a maligned, ostracized racial group indicates how isolated and forgotten the internees were during an era weighted down with fear, sacrifice, insecurity, and loss.
To achieve an unbiased reportage, the authors rely on a variety of rhetorical methods: much of the book is simple chronology, a month-by-month narration of events, some traumatic, but most — like swing music, baton twirling, and Sears, Roebuck catalogs — idiosyncratic to the children who lived their formative years in the 1940s. Enhancing that time frame is Jeanne's foreword and an introductory time line, which sets the plot in a historical framework beginning with the first Japanese settlers arriving in Sacramento, California, in 1869, and concluding with Public Law 414 in 1952, an event which granted "Japanese aliens the right to become naturalized U.S. citizens." Abbreviated and abstracted from human emotions, the list of dates and events merely prefaces the struggle of a people to create a home among North American whites.
Two appropriate touches round out the preface: a single quotation from a 1947 issue of Harper's Magazine decrying the racist motives behind the Japanese relocation program and a gentle poem written twenty years later by a member of another oppressed, war-ravaged Oriental nation. The cyclical motif of birth and death provides the Houstons a sturdy springboard for a book which carries Jeanne from a child of six to a mother of an eleven-year-old daughter and five-year-old twins. As with most earthly truths, the lessons gained at Manzanar are reasserted to each generation so that, hopefully, subsequent eras will avoid the bigotry of their forebears. Thus Jeanne and Jim Houston familiarize their own children with the place where mother, grandmother and grandfather, Uncle Woody, Aunt Chizu, and Granny spent the war years.
A major factor in the Houstons' success is the skillful inclusion of details, such as the boys' formation of a band known as the Jive Bombers, the absurd spectacle of newly outfitted internees in Chaplinesque GI baggy pants, Woody's gift of fifty pounds of sugar to his great Aunt Toyo, Ko's crude wine still, and the relentless sweep of searchlights during riots that erupt at the first anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Jeanne's skillful separation of meaningful bits from a heap of memories sets her apart from the average autobiographer. For instance, she assigns Mama a diminished role in the dialogue and action of the book, but one scene robes her in unforgettable strength:
She reached into the red velvet case, took out a dinner plate and hurled it at the floor right in front of [the dealer's] feet. The man leaped back shouting, "Hey! Hey, don't do that! Those are valuable dishes!" Mama took out another dinner plate and hurled it at the floor, then another and another, never moving, never opening her mouth, just quivering and glaring at the retreating dealer, with tears streaming down her cheeks. . . . When he was gone she stood there smashing cups and bowls and platters until the whole set lay in scattered blue and white fragments across the wooden floor.
Like cups matching saucers, Mama's defiance of exploitation and devaluation befits her grief. The act, appropriate to the atmosphere of hurried exodus, suggests that the Wakatsukis have enough self-possession to survive loss as well as to trounce seedy scavengers who circle like sharks.
In contrast to the dramatic dish-smashing scene, some of the most memorable details incorporate humor, an essential ingredient in the Wakatsukis' grip on sanity as their world turns upside down and jolts them from a comfortable, secure lifestyle. For example, while searching for identity amid Manzanar's jumble of activities, Jeanne naively follows the mean-spirited advice of Reiko and Mitsue, who advise, "A good dancer must have good skin. . . . In order to have good skin you must rub Rose Brilliantine Hair Tonic in your face and rub cold cream in your hair." Jeanne's compliance captures the humiliation that most children suffer when they are victimized by jeering, unprincipled peers.
As the book draws to a close, the authors return to Ko's harum-scarum escapades, which buoy Jeanne "with the first bubbly sense of liberation his defiant craziness had brought along with it. I believed in him completely just then, believed in the fierceness flashing in his wild eyes." She concludes that laughter "would get us past whatever waited inside the fearful dark cloud, get us past the heat and the rattlers, and a great deal more."
Another useful facet of the Houstons' command of nonfiction is contrast — scenes of despair or grief or confusion offsetting moments of jubilation, particularly, the birth of a grandchild, Ray's gluttonous grazing among the mess halls, Woody's insistent patriotism, the polite sharing of a modesty shield in the women's toilet, and Papa's drubbing of a political adversary. Such diversions remind the audience that life at Manzanar encompassed the gamut of human emotions, from sadness and self-reproach to shared joys, courtesy, and pride in accomplishment. The key to contrast is the rhythmic pairing of memories, good with bad, fearful with confident, frustration with coping. A strong image in the cheerless rows of barracks is Mama, returning from her dietician's job, topped with a "bright yellow, longbilled sun hat she had made herself and always kept stiffly starched." Against the rigidity of camp routine, Mama's personal standards are even starchier as the bonnet, engulfed in heat waves, becomes "a yellow flower wavering in the glare."
Tidbits of historical analysis dot the text, as with the comparison of Japanese freedom to that of emancipated black slaves:
In the government's eyes a free man now, [Ko] sat, like those black slaves you hear about who, when they got word of their freedom at the end of the Civil War, just did not know where else to go or what else to do and ended up back on the plantation, rooted there out of habit or lethargy or fear.
A second example contrasts the internees with "an Indian who turned up one Saturday billing himself as a Sioux chief, wearing bear claws and head feathers." His dance, appropriate to time and place, meets with the internees' approval as they identify with Caucasian attempts at racial cleansing of Native Americans, which lasted three centuries in contrast to the internees' three years. These philosophical comments set the Japanese experience in context with every citizen's experience with democracy, whether Irish American, African American, Asian American, or Native American. Well placed segments of dialogue provide the reader a snatch of conversation among internees — for example, the exchange between Jeanne's parents:
Mama said, "Ko."
"What are we going to do?"
"For what?" she asked.
"Listen to me. I have an idea."
The rhythms of exchange between Jeanne's parents delineate the style of everyday communication, which, against a backdrop of camp tension, can explode into harsh words, suspicions, drunken singing of the Japanese national anthem, or childish ranting and sloganeering. Yet, the release provided by incendiary or emotional words supplants the need to use fists, guns, or sabotage to combat unlawful incarceration. Like the valve on a steam engine, language is an important outlet to pent-up hostilities.
Occasional touches of lyricism remind the reader that poetry springs from the humblest and most unlikely settings — for example, Jeanne's perception that
It is so characteristically Japanese, the way lives were made more tolerable by gathering loose desert stones and forming with them something enduringly human. These rock gardens had outlived the barracks and the towers and would surely outlive the asphalt road and rusted pipes and shattered slabs of concrete. Each stone was a mouth, speaking for a family, for some man who had beautified his doorstep.
Such metaphoric witnesses to will symbolize a universal truth about human endurance — as the adage advises, they turn lemons into lemonade by evolving methods of enduring out of the simplest media. To pass idle time and ease frustrations, Ko and other heads of household arrange stones into patterned walks as though paving from bedrock a handmade path to a new life. In this assertion of creativity lies hope that Manzanar is a brief stop along a greater, more significant passage.