Jeanne Wakatsuki’s memoir begins on December 7th, 1941. She is a seven-year-old standing with Mama at the Long Beach harbor, watching Papa’s fishing boat head out to sea, when news of the Pearl Harbor bombing arrives over the radio. The family hurries home and listens to the news with anxiety, not sure what the new war with Japan will mean for their Japanese-American family.
Soon enough, the anti-Asian hysteria that has been brewing in the buildup to the war takes concrete forms. Along with many other Issei, or first-generation Japanese immigrants, Papa is arrested by the FBI and taken to a detention center at Fort Lincoln, where the family receives no news from him. Meanwhile, Mama moves her family to Terminal Island to live near her grown son, Woody, in a larger community of Japanese-Americans. Soon, the government forces all Japanese-Americans to leave coastal towns, where they might be able to commit espionage. The Wakatsukis move to Los Angeles but only stay there for a few months before the government orders them to move to an internment camp in Manzanar, a remote inland town.
By careful planning, Jeanne’s brothers make arrangements so that Mama, the ten Wakatsuki siblings, and their spouses and children are all assigned to the same camp. Jeanne isn’t fazed by the move, since she’s surrounded by family and too young to understand exactly what’s going on. However, when the bus pulls into a barbed-wire enclosure and the family sees the windswept camp and poorly-constructed barracks in which they’re expected to live indefinitely, Mama is overwhelmed. It’s only Woody who can provide the emotional and material support the family needs; he comforts Mama, puts the kids to work cleaning the barracks, and comes up with inventive ways to windproof the family’s cramped unit using the little scrap lumber available at Manzanar.
In the next weeks, Mama gets a job as a dietician, making sure pregnant women and babies get the right meals and vitamins; she also becomes reluctantly accustomed to eating mushy food at the mess halls, using a public latrine, and wearing army surplus clothes to ward off the cold. During this time, Jeanne grows much more independent – Mama is too stressed and worried to provide the emotional support she craves, and due to the communal living style and cramped quarters, she’s spending more time running around with kids than with her own family.
Jeanne’s growing distance from her family becomes even more pronounced when Papa returns home from Fort Lincoln. The physical hardships he endured there and the shame of being suspected of disloyalty to his chosen country have stripped away Papa’s dignity and sunk him into despair. He’s become an alcoholic and refuses to leave the family’s tiny unit, brewing disgusting-smelling moonshine in an improvised still. He picks escalating fights with Mama; once he even threatens to kill her before Kiyo, only a few years older than Jeanne, jumps out of bed and punches him. Everyone in the family is perplexed and disturbed by his behavior, and Jeanne feels she can no longer rely on Papa as the head of the family.
Soon after Papa’s return, Manzanar is rocked by the arrival of the Loyalty Oath, a series of questions that every adult is required to answer, either affirming or denying their exclusive loyalty to the U.S. and willingness to serve in the army. Generally, most of the internees do feel loyal to America, but they feel it’s unjust for the government to require them to renounce Japan and serve in the U.S. military after treating them so badly. Civic groups form to encourage and sometimes pressure people into answering “No” to the questions in the Loyalty Oath; Papa, who thinks it’s wiser to answer “Yes,” gets in a fistfight during a tense community meeting. The tensions caused by the Loyalty Oath, combined with resentment over the living conditions at Manzanar, finally explode in the December Riot, when bands of male internees briefly take over the camp and furiously hunt down members of the Caucasian administration, as well as internees believed to have collaborated with it. Eventually, the police shoot two of the rioters, and this puts an end to the demonstration.
After the December Riot, a new camp director is appointed who promises to make life better for refugees. The Wakatsukis move to a slightly more spacious unit, a formal and well-supplied school is established for children like Jeanne, and life takes on a more normal and bearable quality. Resolving to make the best of a bad situation, internees focus on building a community at Manzanar. Soon it’s like a small American town, complete with a dentist’s office, football league, vegetable gardens, and country and dance bands. People decorate their lawns with rock gardens and men build a large public park. High school students publish a yearbook put on a play about a “typical American family.”
This is period of continued independence and self-exploration for Jeanne. Many people are offering lessons in skills they learned before internment, and Jeanne flirts with traditional Japanese deportment and ballet before becoming enthralled by Catholicism and studying catechism with two Japanese nuns. Only Papa’s stubborn refusal prevents her from formally converting. With a youth group led by a young Quaker volunteer, Lois, Jeanne takes camping trips outside the barbed-wire fence and hikes in the Sierras. She’s thrilled to see the outside world, but she has become so accustomed to Manzanar that she’s reluctant to leave its familiar atmosphere on any more permanent basis.
As the war is drawing to an end, the Supreme Court eventually rules that internment is unconstitutional. The government lets many internees relocate out of the camp, and several of Jeanne’s older siblings jump at this chance to restart their lives. For older people like Mama and Papa, who have lost their careers and possessions and who fear the anti-Japanese prejudice that has heightened during the war, leaving camp is a more daunting prospect. The Wakatsukis leave camp only after the war has formally ended and Manzanar is scheduled to shut down. Clinging to his tattered dignity, Papa buys a broken-down car so the family doesn’t have to travel back to Long Beach via public bus.
The Wakatsukis return to the town where they’d once lived, but instead of their old house they have to live in a derelict housing project, Cabrillo Homes. Mama gets a grueling job in a cannery to support the family, while Papa relapses into alcoholism. The next fall, Jeanne starts middle school. She hopes this is the opportunity to enjoy the “normal” American childhood she’s always dreamed of, but many of her classmates are openly surprised to see she speaks English. While she’s a strong student, she can’t join the Girl Scouts and many friends’ parents won’t invite her over because of her race.
Jeanne becomes close with Radine, a white girl who also lives in Cabrillo Homes. She teaches Radine to baton twirl, a skill she learned at Manzanar, and the two girls become majorettes for a Boy Scout marching band. Jeanne learns that she can use her dance skills and long legs to gain some limited acceptance in male-dominated spheres. However, when they go to high school Radine is quickly accepted by the social circles that exclude Jeanne, and the two girls drift apart.
In Jeanne’s senior year of high school, Papa moves the family to San Jose, where he works farming strawberries. She makes more friends at her high school and even wins the annual carnival queen contest by campaigning in a suggestive and “exotic” sarong. Papa becomes outraged when she announces this to him, saying that she’s not fulfilling traditional Japanese ideals of maidenly modesty and deportment, but Jeanne eventually argues him down and she and Mama pick out a modest and elegant dress for the “coronation” ceremony. Although Jeanne imagines this will be the high point of her high school career, when the day actually arrives she feels overwhelmed by the catty girls who make fun of her dress and the conviction that all of the spectators are judging her by her race, not her character. As she walks towards her pretend throne, she realizes that not only will she never be able to fit in among her high school peers, she no longer wants to.
For many years, Jeanne is too ashamed and hurt to speak about the experience of internment, even among her family. It’s only after she graduates from college, develops her own career, and gets married that she’s able to grapple with the effects—both positive and negative—that it has had on her life and family. Eventually, she takes her husband and three children on a road trip to visit the ruins of Manzanar. Walking among the dusty foundations, she feels an intense personal connection to Manzanar and realizes that while the camp destroyed Papa, it’s been a “birthplace” for her. As she’s finally walking back to the car, she remembers a moment just before the family departed Manzanar, when Papa impetuously purchased the car and took the entire family for a wild joyride. Even though many troubles awaited the family after leaving camp, Jeanne still treasures the memory and the feeling of renewed confidence and security she felt while riding in the back of the car.