Beginning with a foreword and a time line, Farewell to Manzanar contains an autobiographical memoir of Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston's wartime incarceration at Manzanar, a Japanese-American internment camp. On Sunday, December 7, 1941, in Long Beach, California, the family — consisting of both parents, Jeanne's four brothers and five sisters, and Granny — are startled by news that Japan has attacked Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. FBI agents arrest Jeanne's father, Ko, for allegedly supplying oil to Japanese submarines and imprison him at Fort Lincoln, near Bismarck, North Dakota.
In February 1942, President Roosevelt issues Executive Order 9066 ordering Japanese-Americans to evacuate their homes and take up residence in internment camps. The Wakatsukis, with Jeanne's brother Woody at the head, are transported to Owens Valley, California, home of 10,000 internees. The family, overcrowded and miserable in Block 16, endures unappetizing institutional food, dust storms, diarrhea, lack of privacy, foul toilets, and annoying, impersonal red tape.
After his reunion with his family in September 1942, Ko escapes feelings of humiliation through the consumption of homemade rice wine and becomes an angry, bitter, drunken recluse. Jeanne avoids family disorder by hiding under the bed, studying catechism, playing hopscotch, and learning ballet. In spring 1943, the family locates better accommodations at Block 28, where Ko develops optimism through cultivating pear trees. Jeanne enjoys normal school experiences, including participation in glee club and yearbook activities.
Camp life grows difficult as a result of pro-Japanese riots and forced loyalty oaths. Many young men, including Woody, disagree with the older generation and sign up for the military as a means of proving their loyalty. Later, to prove his sense of manhood, Ko rejects leaving Manzanar in a bus and returns his clan two hundred and twenty-five miles to Long Beach via three round trips in a blue, used Nash automobile. The family locates an apartment in Cabrillo Homes, a flimsy housing project in west Long Beach. Mama works in a fish cannery; Ko is unable to find work commensurate with his need for self-esteem.
In 1951, the family moves to the Santa Clara Valley, where Ko returns to farming and raises strawberries. Jeanne rebels against Ko's strict traditionalism by serving as a majorette and being elected homecoming queen. The first Wakatsuki to gain a college degree, she marries James D. Houston, a Caucasian. In April 1972, thirty years after her family's humiliation and loss of livelihood, Jeanne Houston takes her three children to visit the skeletal remains of Manzanar. Her memories return to her father and his defiance of the racist edict that cost the family their home, business, and belongings.