Study Guide

Farewell to Manzanar Family

By Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and James D. Houston

Family

Kiyo and I were too young to run around, but often we would eat in gangs with other kids, while the grownups sat at another table…. A couple of years after the camps opened, sociologists studying the life noticed what had happened to the families. They made some recommendations, and edicts when out that families must start eating together again. Most people resented this; they griped and grumbled. They were in the habit of eating with their friends. And until the mess hall system itself could be changed, not much could really be done. It was too late. My own family, after three years of mess hall living, collapsed as an integrated unit. (1.5.6-7)

Weird how your eating habits can determine how strong your family is, right? The dinner table can be so central to family unity, bringing everyone together over meals. No wonder Jeanne's obsessed with the big dinner table they used to own at the Ocean Park house.

Soon after we were released I wrote a paper for a seventh-grade journalism class, describing how we used to hunt grunion before the war. The whole family would go down to Ocean Park Beach after dark, when the grunion were running, and build a big fire on the sand. I would watch Papa and my older brothers splash through the moonlit surf to scoop out the fish, then we'd rush back to the house where Mama would fry them up and set the sizzling pan on the table, with soy sauce and horseradish, for a midnight meal. I ended the paper with this sentence: "The reason I want to remember this is because I know we'll never be able to do it again." (1.5.9)

There's not much more we can add to this story. Obviously it tugs at the heartstrings because it's not something that should happen, and yet, it does. Families do fall apart. It doesn't help, of course, when the U.S. government steps in and forces families to split.

You might say it would have happened sooner or later anyway, this sliding apart of such a large family, in postwar California. People get married; their interests shift. But there is no escaping the fact that our internment accelerated the process, made it happen so suddenly it was almost tangible. Not only did we stop eating at home, there was no longer a home to eat in. The cubicles we had were too small for anything you might call "living." Mama couldn't cook meals there. It was impossible to find any privacy there. We slept there and spent most of our waking hours elsewhere. (1.5.10-11)

Here's an irony for you: in order for a family to remain close, family members actually need a lot of living space apart from each other. Why is that? (We'll leave that one for you to ponder.)

"When your mother and your father are having a fight, do you want them to kill each other? Or do you just want them to stop fighting?" (1.7.68)

This is Papa talking to his interrogator, and no, he's not remembering some domestic crisis in his own family. He's equating Japan and America to a mother and father fighting, which makes the whole war between Japan and America a lot more personal.

With Papa back our cubicle was filled to overflowing. Woody brought in another army bunk and tick mattress, up next to Mama's. But that was not what crowded the room. It was Papa himself, his dark, bitter, brooding presence. Once moved in, it seemed he didn't go outside for months. He sat in there, or paced, alone a great deal of the time, and Mama had to bring his meals from the mess hall. (1.8.1)

Sometimes all it takes is one person to disrupt a family dynamic, especially when that person is the head honcho and the whole family revolves around respecting him.

For all the pain it caused, the loyalty oath finally did speed up the relocation program. One result was a gradual easing of the congestion in the barracks. A shrewd house hunter like Mama could set things up fairly comfortably - by Manzanar standards - if she kept her eyes open. But you had to move fast. As soon as the word got around that so-and-so had been cleared to leave, there would be a kind of tribal restlessness, a nervous rise in the level of neighborhood gossip as wives jockeyed for position to see who would get the empty cubicles. In Block 28 we doubled our living space - four rooms for the twelve of us. (2.12.5)

There's a reason why the move to Block 28 starts off part II of the book: it really is like a new start for the family. No wonder families jockey for the space.

As his youngest child I had grown up blessed with special attentions. Now, more and more I found myself cut off from him. When I needed reassurance I would get it from Woody or Chizu, or from Mama, who had more of herself to give by this time. (2.14.2)

Jeanne's focus on Papa for the book makes even more sense now—she used to be his favorite kid, so this growing detachment from him must hurt. So maybe writing about him makes his flaws more excusable?

Papa put an arm around her, needing her support. He was wearing the rust-colored turtleneck sweater he used to take on fishing trips, the one she had knitted for him before the war. Now, as she talked, the fingers of one hand played over its yarn, as if inspecting her own workmanship. While the late sun turned this rusty sweater dark shades of orange, they stood there in the great expanse of the firebreak, far out from the rows of barracks, weeping with relief and happiness, talking quietly, just the two of them. (2.14.15)

This is all about Papa and Mama bonding over the birth of their new grandchild. Touching, isn't it? It's also a rare moment of love and affection in the book, so go ahead and let that aw out.

He rubs his eyes to rub away the water and begins to conjure Papa's face. It takes a long time, as if Papa had to cross the whole Pacific to make his appearance in this room. When he's finally standing there, Woody is amazed at how his stance resembles Toyo's. For the first time he understands that crazy pride. (2.18.26)

By "crazy pride," Woody's probably referring to Papa's obsession with his samurai lineage. But it might also have something to do with how much Woody likes his newfound Japanese relatives… or just the fact that they all are so clearly related. It has to be a little trippy to see your father (and yourself) in a long-lost relative.

Papa needed an enterprise he could manage from within the family. He decided that a fortune could be made catching shrimp and abalone off the coast of Mexico, then bringing it back to dry and sell in southern California. Woody was out of the army by this time and looking for work. so at intervals he would rent a boat, take it down to Ensenada or below, load up with abalone, bring the catch home, and all the rest of us would spend days cleaning and cutting up the meat and stringing it out to dry in the bedrooms. For months the apartment reeked of drying seafood. (2.20.25)

Family first—together you rise, and together you fall. Oh—and apparently you also dry abalone in bedrooms together. Good times abound.