Farewell to Manzanar chronicles the effects of wartime internment on the structure of one Japanese-American family, the Wakatsukis. Especially because they are immigrants in a strange land, family cohesion is an important priority to the Wakatsukis and integral to Jeanne’s conception of her family. In some ways, internment increases the family’s commitment to each other: living in close quarters with scarce resources, the family has to make an extra effort to take care of each other. At the same time, life within the barbed-wire fence shows the limits of Mama and Papa’s ability to protect the family and even to navigate American society, and as time goes on their children must take on new roles of independence and leadership. By the end of the memoir, while Jeanne is learning to make decisions and govern her own life, she also feels that the uncomplicated family life she enjoyed before internment is fractured beyond repair.
At first, the pressures of internment cause the family to redouble its commitment to cohesion. Mama and Woody (Jeanne's oldest brother) manage to get the entire family (with the exception of Papa, who has been sequestered with other adult men at Fort Lincoln) placed in the same camp. With ten children, some of whom have spouses and babies, this is no mean feat. Jeanne, the youngest child, derives a sense of security by the knowledge that most of the people on her bus to Manzanar are related to her. Arriving at camp, Mama is overwhelmed by the prospect of living in primitive shacks, which leave their occupants vulnerable to cold and dust storms. However, Woody lifts everyone’s spirits by fixing up the shack himself and mobilizing the younger children to perform small chores. He uses family unity to preserve a sense of normalcy and safety even in these trying circumstances.
As the Wakatsukis become more accustomed to camp life, Jeanne records some poignant scenes of love between family members. When Mama worries about their future, Papa (by this time returned from Fort Lincoln and reunited with the family) massages her shoulders with a special technique. When Jeanne’s sister Eleanor suffers a dangerous childbirth in the primitive camp hospital, everyone in the family gathers to support her, and her plethora of relatives means she’s never unattended. However, internment also irrevocably breaks down the Wakatsukis’ traditional family structure—especially once Papa returns to Manzanar from Fort Lincoln. While Papa used to be a confident and dynamic patriarch, making decisions and upholding the family’s dignity, he’s broken down by the physical and psychological stress of imprisonment and has slipped into alcoholism. Depressed and unable to work, shouting abuse at Mama and even pushing Granny around, he forfeits his leadership of the family and makes the family into a source of stress, rather than comfort. Paradoxically, at this time Manzanar’s close quarters actually drive the family farther apart. Jeanne remarks that under normal circumstances marital stress and quarrels can play out and diffuse privately, but the lack of privacy here causes every dispute to escalate and fester. The turbulent atmosphere at home causes Jeanne and her siblings to spend more time outside, finding entertainment and friendships elsewhere rather than cleaving to each other.
When the war ends, Jeanne and her siblings cultivate a new and liberating independence; even so, Jeanne mourns the extent to which internment has forever changed her family’s structure. Before internment, Jeanne and her siblings unquestioningly obeyed their parents, even when they didn’t want to. However, Jeanne’s high school years are marked by open arguments with Papa, and she often flouts his wishes. Her new independence is crucial to her later life: she remarks with pride that she’s the first of her family to finish college, and the first to marry someone who is not Japanese. However, she also finds it frightening to lose confidence in her parents. She often contrasts Papa’s current alcoholism and aimlessness to his past competence, and she treasures moments when he reverts to his former self, such as when he spontaneously purchases a car in which to drive away from Manzanar.
Jeanne’s siblings seem to have similar experiences. Woody, the eldest, becomes the informal head of the family after Papa is incapacitated. Although this new role helps him develop into a confident and responsible man, he seems to yearn for his old role as an obedient son. For example, even as he announces his intention to join the army contrary to Papa’s wishes, he deferentially listens to Papa’s arguments against this decision, just as he would have before the war. After internment, several of Jeanne’s older siblings head to the East Coast in search of better jobs, while Papa and Mama are too exhausted to begin life in a new place. While this choice will probably improve the siblings’ quality of life, it signifies the disintegration of the larger family unit and Mama and Papa’s loss of their central position within it.
Familial change is inevitable and even necessary as children grow up. However, because of internment, the Wakatsukis suffer these changes before they would have normally and under highly stressful circumstances. Permeating the end of the memoir, Jeanne’s nostalgia for her lost family life argues that even devoted families with the best intentions cannot combat the psychological trauma of unjust imprisonment.
Internment and Family Life ThemeTracker
Internment and Family Life Quotes in Farewell to Manzanar
My own family, after three years of mess hall living, collapsed as an integrated unit. Whatever dignity or feeling of filial strength we may have known before December 1941 was lost, and we did not recover it until many years after the war …
[Papa] didn’t die there, but things finished for him there, whereas for me it was like a birthplace. The camp was where our lifelines intersected.
He was not a great man. He wasn’t even a very successful man. He was a poser, a braggart, and a tyrant. But he had held onto his self-respect, he dreamed grand dreams, and he could work well at any task he turned his hand to …
There had always been doors to keep some moments private. Here there were no doors. Nothing was private. And tonight [Papa] was far too serious—he seemed to have reached some final limit.
I was proud of Kiyo and afraid for what would happen to him; but deeper than that, I felt the miserable sense of loss that comes when the center has collapsed and everything seems to be flying apart around you.
For a man raised in Japan, there was no greater disgrace. And it was the humiliation. It brought him face to face with his own vulnerability, his own powerlessness. He had no rights, no home, no control over his own life.