Summary and Analysis
Impulsively, Ko (ever the exhibitionist) decides one day that if the Wakatsuki clan must return to the world, they will do so in style. Purchasing a "midnight blue Nash sedan" in Lone Pine, he restores his self-esteem by repatriating his family his way — even if it means making three trips for family members and belongings over the 225 miles from Owens Valley to Long Beach. To the surprise of Jeanne and her mother, the feared predictions of racism prove untrue. Like refugees, the Wakatsukis drop their fears of ostracism and turn to the pressing need for housing, which consists of scraps and oddments — "trailer camps, Quonset huts, back rooms of private homes, church social halls, anywhere they could fit."
Again, Quakers help them; this time, they locate an apartment in Cabrillo Homes, a government-built project in west Long Beach. Mama collects her kitchenware and silver from former neighbors in Boyle Heights; however, the warehouse which stored their furniture and appliances has been "unaccountably 'robbed."' Without essentials, including Ko's boats, the family "[starts] over from economic zero." Reflecting on her father's losses, Jeanne, sensitive to the male achievement drive, labels them "another snip of the castrator's scissors." While Ko pursues idealistic plans of creating a Japanese housing project, Mama pragmatically applies her $500 in savings to current needs and returns to fish cannery employment.
For eleven-year-old Jeanne, an unsettling first day in school begins with an innocent gaffe — Radine, a white classmate, is surprised that Jeanne can speak English. Jeanne decides to do her best and absorb rejection by blaming herself for failure, including exclusion from Girl Scouts, a whites-only group run by snooty mothers. Undaunted by the turn-down, Jeanne and Radine become buddies; Radine rebuffs others' racist stares, Jeanne teaches her to twirl a baton. Expertise leads to Jeanne’s acceptance as lead majorette with a Boy Scout drum and bugle corps, supported by a pack of admiring fathers.
Maturation forces a wedge between Jeanne and Ko, who insists that his daughter follow the female ideal of his Old Country youth rather than the American image of the late 1940s. Ruefully, she castigates herself: "I had lost respect for Papa." In the struggle to assert his masculinity, Ko joins Woody in a plan to dry and sell abalone. Initially, the venture seems hopeful, but eventually it goes "to pieces." The failure of the scheme further depletes Ko's sense of manhood as Woody assumes more importance to the family and Ko returns to alcohol, an addiction which shames and troubles Jeanne. The most crushing embarrassment comes at a PTA awards dinner where Ko, overdressed and over-formal, humiliates Jeanne by executing "a slow, deep, Japanese bow from the waist" when she is recognized for her scholastic achievement by the principal.
The shift in setting is of primary importance to the remainder of the book. The return to more civilized accommodations begins with the flushing of the toilet, a welcome sound to these former internees who are used to foul-odored, stopped-up toilets and standing in line at crowded latrines that worked. The Wakatsukis rejoice in private bedrooms and a kitchen where they can cook what they choose and eat as a family. The environment, typical of government planning, consists of two-story stucco units, plank banisters, community clotheslines, and sparse landscaping. A few years later, when Jeanne is old enough to enter high school, she finally sees Cabrillo Homes for what it is: little more than "a half-finished and undermaintained army base."
A serious theme, the loss of status, reflects a basic difference in male and female adults. Just as post-Civil War and Depression-era unemployment emasculated black males as black females discovered the empowerment of domestic work for real wages, Papa's loss of status contrasts with Mama's return to the position of wage earner. A proud man too status conscious to join her in menial work, Ko absorbs himself in blueprints of a dream neighborhood.
For Jeanne, the battlefield of the sixth grade is tangible proof that detainment has forever labeled her as foreign, "the slant-eyed face, the Oriental." In a significant coming-to-knowledge of her family's ordeal, she concludes, "You cannot deport 110,000 people unless you have stopped seeing individuals." More demeaning is her awareness that she and other Orientals have acquiesced to unjust treatment out of the subconscious belief that their detainment was somehow deserved. With a child's logic, Jeanne, a pre-teen Alice in Wonderland, chooses to shrink into social invisibility, but she offsets the possibility of complete extinction by overachieving through academic performance and athletics, by participating in yearbook, newspaper, and student government, and by asserting her femininity in her gold-braided majorette costume, which displays her gobo legs.
Bismarck the "Bismarck stick" is a pun on Bismarck, North Dakota, site of the prison where Ko was incarcerated, and on Otto von Bismarck (1815-1898), a Prussian statesman who unified Germany; he is remembered for his dandified airs as he brandished a swagger stick while he inspected troops.
Okie an insulting nickname applied to midwestern farmers who were ruined in the 1930s by the Dust Bowl. These rural down-and-outers from Oklahoma, Kansas, Texas, New Mexico, and surrounding areas packed their families and goods on tenuous antique vehicles and journeyed west to California to search out a better life for their dispossessed families. John Steinbeck immortalized the Joads, a fictional family of Okies bound for California, in The Grapes of Wrath, the source of a 1940 motion picture by the same name, starring Henry Fonda as Tom Joad and Jane Darwell as Ma.
Burma-Shave signs a uniquely successful advertising idea utilizing a series of small, unobtrusive roadside advertisements which formed a witty jingle.
Quonset huts a trademark name for drab, prefabricated shelters designed like long loaves of bread.
this is usually just another form of invisibility that is, seeing the female body as a sex object rather than the outer representation of a human individual.
abalone a tasty mollusk similar to scallops.