Character Analysis Mama Wakatsuki


Perhaps the key to understanding both Jeanne and Ko is Mama, the quiet, unselfish matriarch who never quails at Ko's extravagances and who follows pragmatism as surely as Columbus set his course by the North Star. When money is needed, she locates work in the West Coast fish canneries and as a dietician at Manzanar. When family comfort is threatened, she mobilizes her crew in padding the barracks to keep out dust. When Jeanne needs guidance in how to look like a well-brought-up young lady, Mama superintends the shopping trip which locates the poufy dress that will showcase her daughter's beauty without sacrificing modesty. For whatever yin that arises, Mama provides the yang.

Toward Ko, Mama maintains a passive aggressive stance. She is able to conciliate, smooth over, or ignore detrimental behaviors which endanger family harmony, such as Ko's refusal to eat in the mess hall or his menacing of Mama's aged mother. When he plunges to the bottom of despair and threatens to kill Mama, she simply waits for him to finish the act. Outfoxed by Mama's refusal to share in his maudlin melodrama, Ko respects her, yet distances himself from her strength. While his resources sag at Cabrillo Homes, Mama applies herself more energetically to physical labor. In typical Asian style, she bears the burdens without complaint, grows stronger, and outlives her flamboyant husband. Overall, Jeanne owes much of her indomitable courage and foresight to both parents. A blend of Papa's stubborn exhibitionism and Mama's altruistic care for the people around her, Jeanne has her way and marries out of her race. Following years of motherhood, Jeanne at last puts herself first and leads her family to the source of a vexatious nettle that must be excised in order for her to know peace. In the guise of the objective archeologist, she locates shards of the past on the windswept grounds of Manzanar. Rapidly, her objectivity fades into memories of home.

Playing through Jeanne's mind are the videotapes which all children recall in times of stress. When adulthood weighs heavier than the spirit can bear, the mind shucks off maturity. Disengaged from the grown-up Jeanne, like Alice-down-the-rabbit-hole, she returns to Papa's lap, Woody's big-brother protection, and Mama's homilies. The disembodied voices that Jeanne absorbs from Manzanar are not those of ghosts. They emerge intact from past scenes, long suppressed, of a defiant dad too proud to ride the bus back to Long Beach. They emerge from Mama, the selfless dietician who nurtures others with the spiritual food that will make them strong.

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