The book opens with a memory of the day Pearl Harbor gets hit by the Japanese. Jeanne recalls her father and brothers setting out in their fishing boats, only to return almost immediately because they've been instructed to do so—America's officially at war with Japan.
Only America doesn't quite know what to do with the Japanese-Americans on the West Coast (the region nearest Pearl Harbor), so the government decides to evacuate them (you know, from their homes and communities, and against their will) to internment camps, though the whole process doesn't happen right away. There's a lot of waiting, during which time Jeanne and her family (minus her father, who's already been taken away by the feds) move from their Santa Monica home to her brother's place in Long Beach (where there are more Japanese people).
During this whole period, Jeanne's just starting to associate with other Japanese-Americans. Her home in Santa Monica isn't exactly full of people like her, so moving close to all these Japanese people is a huge culture shock to her.
They also move to another place in Boyle Heights, but only a little while later they're forced to move to Manzanar.
From this point on, camp life all about how the Wakatsukis get split up (Papa's sent to another camp for Isseis) and become less of a family because of internment.
The first year at Manzanar is super-rough: their barracks are crowded and unlivable; there's no privacy; there are few supplies; the sewage system doesn't work… the problems go on and on. It's all about survival for the thousands of Japanese-Americans streaming into the camp, and they end up having to figure out how to run the camp themselves.
Even though the whole thing completely sucks (there's even a riot that results in a couple of internee deaths), Jeanne's life more or less begins in camp. Jeanne and the other kids go off and do their own thing while the adults in the camp do theirs, and in the process Jeanne becomes much more independent.
By the second year, things are generally more settled, except for the arrival of Papa, who joins them at Manzanar late into the first year. In fact, he kind of makes everything worse because he's become an anti-social, violent, brooding alcoholic. Plus, other internees think he's an informer working with the authorities, which doesn't help his situation out either.
The family's kind of gotten into a groove, though. There's an actual school, tons of activities and clubs, and adults—including Mama—have jobs that they get paid for (although the salary is ridiculously low).
In fact, the camp has turned from this impossible place into a little, desert paradise and all because the internees have turned everything around. They create gardens and a farm, plant trees, and even build their own buildings and roads. Even Papa gets into the gardening thing eventually.
Things are so tame that the internees are even allowed to go outside of camp and hike around, which is good for a number of reasons, but extra good because that's where their farm is.
There is one major issue that affects everyone: the Loyalty Oath, which basically demands that every adult in camp pledge allegiance to America and renounce Japan. The Loyalty Oath also asks if the internees would be willing to fight for the U.S.
The questionnaire ends up tearing whole families apart. For Jeanne's family, her brother Woody and Papa disagree about the whole volunteering for war thing. Woody's willing to go, whereas Papa thinks the whole thing is a just another sign of how terribly the Americans are treating the internees.
In the end though, even Papa answers Yes Yes to the questions. He gets into a fight with another guy over the answers because the guy basically calls Papa a traitor to the Japanese.
People start leaving camp even before the war ends because the feds are finally kind of admitting that—generally uncoolness aside—what they're doing is pretty illegal under the Constitution.
But people really begin to leave once the U.S. drops the A-bomb on Japan.
The thing is, a lot of people—especially the older folks like Jeanne's parents—don't really want to leave camp. With no jobs or homes to return to, they're not sure where they can even go or how they can support themselves and their families. The problems of being interned don't end when the camps do.
For Jeanne's siblings, the answer is to head to the East Coast, which is what most of them end up doing because there are jobs over there and less history of anti-Japanese violence.
But for her parents, waiting until the feds schedule them to leave makes more sense. Papa isn't into going to the East Coast and starting all over in a new place, but he also doesn't have anything set up in California.
Finally, days before they're scheduled to leave for good, Papa decides to take things into his own hands, buys a car, and moves the remaining family members back to Long Beach.
They end up moving into a housing project, which at first seems cool since it has three bedrooms and a private bathroom (an improvement over camp conditions) but isn't really, especially since Papa isn't working and Mama's working a low-end job at the cannery.
Jeanne has it rough coming out of camp too, especially when it comes to school. It's never easy being the new kid, but she has to deal with the fact that she's seen as an outsider and a foreigner to all the kids, too… even though she's an American as well.
On top of it all, she's trying to figure out what it means to be female. She's not allowed to join a lot of the typical girl things (like Girl Scouts) because of being Japanese, but she does become best friends with a white girl who lives in the housing project. Together they become baton twirlers for a neighboring Boy Scout troop, and Jeanne ends up so good that she even becomes majorette for them.
Things don't go well for the first three years of high school though. Jeanne and her best friend start to part ways because her friend becomes one of the cool white kids, while Jeanne's even more outcast due to her race and her personality.
Then the family moves up to San Jose for Jeanne's final year of high school. She seems to blossom here and even gets chosen to be carnival queen, but in the end, she still feels out of place and foreign because being a beauty queen clashes so much with her parents' Japanese values. It's hard for Jeanne to feel like she really fits in anywhere.
The book finally ends with Jeanne all grown up and on a pilgrimage back to Manzanar with her husband and kids. Growing up with all that racism around her hasn't been easy, nor has it been easy learning to remember and talk about her experience at Manzanar, but Jeanne manages to do it.
Once she and her family arrive at Manzanar, she starts to hear the voices of all the people who were interned there in the wind. She even hears her dead mother's voice. Even though all she finds are bare ruins of the camp, she can still see evidence of how the internees lived, especially their rock gardens which are still kind of present despite how much the land's been cleared.
The book ends with a final memory Jeanne has of her now-dead father and the day he bought the car to return them to Los Angeles. Even though he's a total brute and drunk, the way he drives—like a madman—actually inspires Jeanne with confidence to get past her fears of what life might be like outside of camp.
Inspiration: it can come even in the form of a drunk-driving, domineering father.