Farewell to Manzanar Introduction
In A Nutshell
A young girl and her family are forced into an internment camp because of what they look like. Kind of sounds like Anne Frank, right?
Close. Except instead of setting Farewell to Manzanar in Europe, Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and James D. Houston's book takes place in the United States, in an internment camp for Japanese-American people during World War II. And as you'd expect, that means Farewell to Manzanar details all the stuff that goes through a young girl's mind when forced to live with a whole lot of fear, no freedom, and alongside her family in very crowded quarters.
In other words, you've got a book full of family dramas and coming-of-age issues (including body image stuff and, of course, boys), but you've also got a book that shows how complex and contradictory camp life could be for Japanese-American internees.
In short? Nothing's simple for our main character, Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston (yes—she's one of the authors). More than that, though, Jeanne's story provides a glimpse into what it's like to experience and understand yourself as an Asian-American person in the 1940s (and on).
Oh—and in case you hadn't figured this out yet, you'll probably want to grab a box of tissues before settling down with this read. A book about forced internment can't help but contain a few tearjerkers along the way.
Why Should I Care?
This is an easy one. Why should you care? Because if you're reading this, you're probably an American.
And heck, even if you're not, the whole book is about the question of freedom and what that truly means, especially when your "democratic" (that's right—we used scare quotes) government decides to lock you up without due process.
Looking for some modern parallels? Not to be downers, but you can pretty much just close your eyes and let your finger land anywhere on a global map—rounding people up for ridiculous and prejudiced reasons happens all over the place. If you want to get specific, though, then think Guantanamo Bay… or, for an event that occurred at the same time as the events of the book, look no further than the internment of Jewish (and other) people by the Nazis.
Granted, the U.S. didn't set up gas chambers for Japanese-American people, but the whole question of liberty and citizenship—what a country can and can't do to the people residing within its borders—is key to almost every major international flare-up. And it just so happens that that's what the U.S. internment of Japanese-American people during WWII—i.e. this book—is all about.
But we know you get all of this—after all, we're talking about a major historical event. So why else is this book important?
It's pretty rare to get an eyewitness account or memoir of something like life in an internment camp, so when one comes along, especially one that's well-written, you kind of have to jump on it.
What helps too is how surprising Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston's account is. Kids having fun in an internment camp? Come again?
But that's just what Wakatsuki Houston's story is: full of contradictions, ironies, and surprises.
Plus, at the core of it all, the book is still about a girl coming-of-age, dealing with her parents and with her peers. It's about feeling like a perpetual misfit or misunderstood outcast even when (or because) you're surrounded by friends and relatives.
In other words, don't let an internment camp story make you think you can't relate. Jeanne's stories are as typical of an angsty teenager as any other coming-of-age novel or memoir.