“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. I confess I enjoyed this part of it at the time.” -Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and James D. Houston, Farewell to Manzanar
It’s a story that’s both familiar and strange to me. It might have been my mother’s story if she’d been born ten years earlier or my grandmother’s story if she hadn’t been embarrassed to tell all.
Farewell to Manzanar is Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston’s fascinating memoir about coming of age in an internment camp during the Second World War. The camp, situated in Manzanar, California, housed over 110,000 Japanese Americans in 36 blocks of hastily constructed barracks on 540 acres of sultry desert land. Jeanne goes overnight from being a carefree seven-year-old to an internee. Her father, a fisherman, is seized one day by the FBI under suspicion that his radio is being used to transmit information to Japan. By the time her father is released, her mother and the rest of the family have been forcibly relocated to cramped, dirty quarters at Manzanar, where the communal toilets are not even partitioned and the food is so terrible that most everyone falls ill.
I wonder to what extent my own family members suffered such indignities upon being interned at camps in Minadoka, Idaho, and Sandon and Kaslo, BC.
But what I find most interesting and unsettling about the tale is the erosion of communal family life. We hear of children and teenagers left to their own devices, allowed to eat in the mess hall with their friends everyday - running from one mess hall to the next in search of more palatable food - and all the while their parents are either absent (interned elsewhere) or languishing in depression and alcoholism. Gangs form, governed by violence and their own secret hierarchies. And covert romances, too (one might speculate). Although the author only touches on these aspects (as a child, she was too young to be sucked into the group dynamics that led to the infamous Manzanar Riot), she is clear about the fallout – the loss of parental authority. It was in this kind of no man’s land that my own grandparents fell in love against their elders’ wishes and ran away after the war.
Photo from: here