Growing out of a crucial test of American democracy and world order, Farewell to Manzanar functions on several levels: As a slice of history, the book epitomizes the status of civil rights as viewed by people who lose freedoms from 1941 to 1945 for the sake of national security. Working from nonfiction data, Jeanne and James Houston recreate nonjudgmental pictures of California citizens terrorized by an enemy attack on the Hawaiian islands. Knowing that the West Coast could be the next target, local people raise no cry against FBI agents who arrest likely collaborators, particularly Jeanne's father, whose job takes him by private boat beyond the coast, where he could easily contact the Japanese military and pass on fuel or information about Terminal Island, a spit of land shared by Japanese-American residents and the U.S. Navy.
A serious theme imbedded in the furor and insecurity resulting from the bombing of Pearl Harbor consists of three questions:
- Who has rights?
- What must the government do to protect those rights?
- What must the government do to prevent the Asian-American segment of the population from violating U.S. loyalties in order to satisfy loyalty to the Old Country?
A vast number of internees have relatives and ties with Japan. Some Japanese Americans were educated in Japan, preserve traditions and customs, honor Shinto and Buddhist rites, correspond and visit with citizens of Japan, and speak and write the Japanese language. Executive Order 9066 implies that those ties and traditions to the former homeland must remain dormant and non-threatening until all danger of attack has passed and the U.S. is once more free of menace by Japanese bombs.
President Roosevelt's quick action on matters of national security seem, on the surface, to represent the common good, which is an essential aspect of his role as commander in chief of the military. However, Japanese Americans were interned under severe scrutiny — compared to the treatment of Italian Americans and German Americans, who also maintained Old Country ties with enemy nations. No less a threat than potential Japanese saboteurs, people with links to Germany and Italy received no harassment or inquisition equivalent to that suffered by people of Japanese ancestry. The obvious conclusion is that, unlike European Americans, Japanese Americans are racially identifiable. Because their physical features reflected the hated Tojo, fanatical kamikaze, and the Emperor of Japan, Caucasian hysteria viewed Japanese Americans as a highly visible — and hateable — target.
When the war ended, Italian Americans and German Americans faced no great loss of home, possessions, income, or reputation. They returned to the mainstream of Caucasian America. Japanese Americans, who were released 1,000 at a time from internment camps, crept back into freedom as veritable paupers, whipped in spirit and pocketbook. Their sons, many of whom returned from the war scarred by the experience or encased in coffins, received no accolades for unusually demanding service. Not only did former internees grieve for their children, the lost years, interrupted lives, and the humiliation of American-style concentration camps, but they also bore the burden of America's use of atomic force against Hiroshima and Nagasaki, two civilian cities where friends and relatives died cataclysmic deaths or survived under the threat of future cancers engendered by radiation.
As a depiction of coming of age, Farewell to Manzanar records one girl's efforts to reach womanhood with a strong sense of self. Against the backdrop of incarceration, separation from father and, later, brothers and sisters, and enrollment in a school where the teacher pointedly ignores her, Jeanne experiences the usual insecurities and challenges that mold young children into sturdy adults. Resilience and self-sufficiency, both major factors in her success, inspire numerous methods of passing time, coping with deprivation, and learning to live in crowded conditions with a severely dysfunctional family.
An integral part of coming of age is rebellion, an attitude which Jeanne shares with brothers Kiyo and Woody and father, Ko. No less insistent on individuality than the others, Jeanne reaches out to neighborhood children who also live on the periphery of social acceptance — Hispanics who teach her native songs and a lower-class white boy from North Carolina, who kisses as though he means it. Hungering for attention, Jeanne joins the motley array of Cabrillo Homes teenagers and copes well with diversity.
Like Ko, Jeanne's perception of marriage diverges from the accepted pattern. Her role models reveal incremental steps toward assimilation. Granny, who speaks no English, treasures Japanese valuables. Ko, the Wakatsuki black sheep, prefers autonomy in a land of promise to diminished status in Japan, where his father fell short of the Samurai status of Ko's grandfather. Working the American dream to his benefit, Ko garners numerous skills — fishing, farming, denture and furniture making, orchard pruning, and translation. Mama, who was intended as the bride of a farmer, exacerbates his autocratic streak by eloping with him and raising children remarkably similar to their parents in individuality.
Jeanne, no less a challenge to Ko's authority than Woody or Kiyo, cultivates friendship with Radine, the stereotypical blond, flirtatious all-American miss who flourished in the 1940s. Content with Asian features, Jeanne comments, "I never wanted to change my face or to be someone other than myself. What I wanted was the kind of acceptance that seemed to come so easily to Radine." The only route to an acceptable level of social acceptance was through defiance of Ko and emulation of Radine.
As a glimpse of family, the story depicts a universal truth — that children often adopt their parents' idiosyncracies by applying them to new situations. For Jeanne and Woody, the future does not lie in physical emigration from Japan but in spiritual emigration from tradition. The tensions brought about by arguments, Ko's ultimatums, and an undercurrent of misbehavior and challenge push Woody into tedious arguments and Jeanne to the extremes of her love-hate relationship with Ko.
The sufferings of Manzanar are summed up in Jeanne's wavering regard for her father. She visualizes her shame at Manzanar in terms of Ko's downfall. She admires his pluck; she abhors his vulgarity and bluster. When Mama takes over the family's financial support, Jeanne confesses that Papa no longer deserves respect, an admission which wounds her more deeply than it hurts Ko. The aspects of Ko's personality which fill her with pride are the qualities she pursues. Yet, it is impossible for her, a modern American female, to emulate Oriental male bravado. Her struggle leads her far afield to the formation of a new nuclear unit, the first Wakatsuki to marry out of her race and produce mixed-race children.
As an exposition of Japanese tradition, the narrative does justice to its opening premise, that Issei, Nisei, and Sansei share no single point of view. Forced to state their loyalties with a yes, yes or no, or no on two oaths, the mixed generations reach critical mass. Woody, the conciliatory brother who gets what he wants through compromise, takes a job as carpenter and awaits the draft rather than volunteer for induction into the army. To him, the question of loyalty to Old Country or to the U.S. lies in action: "The more of us who go into the army, the sooner the war will be over, the sooner you and Mama will be out of here."
Peacetime issues such as the nuts and bolts of everyday living delineate the Japanese urge for unity and harmony. In crowded latrines, women offer each other the courtesy of a pasteboard modesty shield and bow politely to express a mutual distaste for the distressing situation, to which they refuse to surrender their civility. Likewise, mealtimes herd families through chow lines in barbaric assembly-line fashion, but Japanese tradition restores the niceties of home through shared pots of tea and whatever amenities can be squeezed out of small gardens, visits, and the singing of the Japanese national anthem.
Amply sprinkled with Japanese equivalents for flower, stupid, hoodlums, massage, stoic philosophy, traditional dance, traditional theater, woven mats, and the lyrics to the Japanese national anthem, the text draws the reader into a foreign culture by providing context clues, such as the peripheral description of Jeanne's efforts to momo (massage) Mama's back by loosening tense muscles with therapeutic pokes and jabs. The Houstons downplay foreignness by emphasizing the aspects of living that returnees share with other racial groups and social levels at Cabrillo Homes. By maintaining control of such details, the authors focus on the themes of freedom, rights, and sacrifice, which preoccupied the entire nation until V-J Day.