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Guest Post: Farewell to Manzanar reviewed by Mac McCaskill



"Mountain now loosens rivulets of tears.
Washed stones, forgotten clearing."
 —Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston




When my father was a boy, he learned that he’d been adopted by the man whom he’d thought was his father. Digging through a dusty trunk in his attic, he found legal documents that gave him the name he wore and the father he knew, but also uncovering an origin that had been hidden from him.

His mother was, by all accounts, a volatile woman — her siblings called her “the hornet” because her sting was quick and painful. She was a hard woman, and reticent to either acknowledge or divulge anything about his biological father. Over the years, he eventually learned from other relatives that she met Mr. Black — it was his name, but also a metaphor for much more — in a late 1920’s dance hall. He left her pregnant, taking whatever money he could get his hands hand on when he went.

Late in his life, after his mother died, my dad started quizzing other relatives for information about Mr. Black, and learned that he had a half-brother and half-sister. He reached out to them, curious about the man who would have been his father. Curious, too, about his other, unlived life, the one that you imagine still plays out, with another you — who isn’t really you, but a slightly better you, in a slightly better corner of the universe — with another family, another father who didn’t abandon you. It’s universal, sons and daughters searching for the person their parents used to be, if only a little more charged in those who’ve been disconnected from their bloodline.

Dad was a junior high school English teacher. He often brought a copy of the books he was teaching his students — Romeo and Juliet or Shane. Before teaching, he had served in reconstruction Japan after the bombs were dropped. What little he ever said about his war service, he always brightened up when he spoke about Japan and the Japanese people. So, it shouldn’t have been a surprise that he brought home a copy of Farewell to Manzanar when he introduced it to his class. Of course, I ignored it, like the other books Dad brought home, exiting the room quickly when he tried to talk to me about why it was important to him.

Wandering through a bookstore in California, I happened on a bright orange and yellow-covered book, calling out to me from the shelves. When I pulled it down, my breath caught as I read the title — Farewell to Manzanar. I brought it home and shelved it with the other non-fiction titles in my library, but it pulled at me when I walked by, urging me to reconnect with my father.

Compact and paperback, it was a perfect choice for a recent business trip. In the pressurized air, as I began to read it, I heard my father in Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston’s story, saw his own longing and search for a father he didn’t know.

Farewell to Manzanar is generally categorized as a story about the internment of Japanese American’s following the attack on Pearl Harbor — a cautionary tale about how fear can overcome basic honor and respect. But it’s so much more, if you listen.

George Ko Wakatsuki (Jeanne Wakatsuki's father)
Jeanne Wakatsuki was interned with her family at Manzanar, in a desert valley between two mountain ranges in eastern California. She was seven years old and she spent the next four years of her life in the camp. But her father was taken first to Fort Lincoln, falsely accused of aiding Japanese submarines off the California coast while fishing. When he joined his family at Manzanar, he was broken, changed. He arrived with a limp and a habit for the bottle. Wakatsuki longed to discover what had happened to her father, but it wasn’t until she begin writing Farewell to Manzanar that she started to understand that her father’s life ended at Manzanar, where her life began. She may have embarked on writing this book to tell her family’s story, and the country’s, but what she was really doing was giving voice to the search for her father, a man she didn’t know. It’s no wonder that my own father found himself in the pages of Wakatsuki’s book, saw her search as his own. And reading Farewell to Manzanar helped me to understand him.

Bottom Line: Life in a Japanese internment camp — but also a search for a father.

5 bones!!!!!

~~~~~

Mac McCaskill (a.k.a., blackdogbooks) is a prolific reader and writer.  I've had the pleasure of reading his reviews for almost ten years now, and his short stories for the last two or three.  I suspect upstanding editors of online journals and print magazines of excellence will eventually do more than simply read Mac McCaskill's stories too.  He knows how to tell a good one, doesn't he? Moved by what Mac had to say regarding Manzanar in his poignant piece above, I asked him for the privilege of posting it here.

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