Critical Essays Settings in Farewell to Manzanar


The harsh, unfriendly location of Manzanar parallels the brutality of confinement. Contrasting with their Long Beach home, where the Wakatsukis scooped up grunion on a moonlit beach, ate at a communal table, and watched the departing Nereid from the neighborhood wharf, Jeanne reconstructs the tight configuration of rows of barracks, latrines, school, and hospital, the overseeing guardhouses, the chlorine shed, and the shadow of MPs, never far away from ordinary activities such as hopscotch, reading, and gazing out over the Mojave. Much of the physical discomfort of internment comes from nature itself — the whirling dust storms which pierce cubicle walls, the craggy face of Mount Whitney, and the extremes of heat and cold, for which the families are inadequately prepared.

Jeanne relieves gritty, depressing scenes with glimpses of her family in other locales. Woody, assigned to duty in post-war Japan, visits the memorial tombstone dedicated to Ko in 1913. Ushered into his Aunt Toyo's residence, he observes

an immaculate rock garden, its sand white and freshly raked. A hedge of high bamboo ordered it. Inside, the rooms were almost empty — a large, once elegant country house stripped of all but a few mats, an altar in one corner of the first room, a funeral urn. They had not been hit by bombs. The war itself, the years of losing, had turned the house into a clean, swept, airy skeleton.

In her own disjointed post-war resettlement, Jeanne is driven from Manzanar to Long Beach, with its "palm-lined boulevards, past the busy rows of shops and markets, the lawns and driveways of quiet residential streets." To a returning refugee, the six-hour drive is "a time machine, as if, in March of 1942 one had lifted his foot to take a step, had set it down in October of 1945, and was expected just to keep on walking, with all intervening time erased." Additional bits of locale take brothers and sisters east to New Jersey, Mama back to the fish cannery, Ko to his home studio and drawing board, and Jeanne to high school. After the family moves a second time, to a strawberry farm in Santa Clara, she indicates her disinterest in farming and her absorption in teen concerns by giving no details of home. The most vivid scene is her elongated processional down the bed-sheeted royal way to "its plywood finale" — a throne honoring a carnival queen who is ridiculed by several of her resentful female attendants.

Part 3, the most intense description of place, brings Jeanne full circle to the site now synonymous with Japanese-American oppression — Manzanar, which was actually one of ten internment camps. Like a conductor calling out stops, she mentally records the miles from Santa Cruz down Route 101 to Paso Robles, from the Diablo Range around Bakersfield, through Tehachapi Pass and on to the Mojave. The tension in her voice resonates the last miles, beyond "two oases, the first at Olancha, the second around Lone Pine, a small, tree-filled town" and on to a scene dominated by "sagebrush, tumbleweeds, and wind." The sketchy remains of what used to be a fair-sized, ready-made city poke up from the sand like remnants of a ghost town: a pillbox, elms, cattle guard, white obelisk memorializing the dead, spigot, and flagpole circle. The scent of spring blossoms and the single stepping stone that once served as someone's front stoop bring back homier memories of a time when Ko and Mama sat on the steps deciding how to make the long trek back to civilized life. The zany vision of Ko steering his car on a shredded front tire replays Ko's indomitable spirit as he yells to onlookers his jubilant rhyme, "No bus for us! No bus for us!"

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