As the narrator of Farewell to Manzanar, Jeanne describes events in a very unemotional and observational way, as if looking on from a distance. This tone is effective because it helps her keep the factual accounts of the events she witnesses separate from her emotions at the time she witnesses them. She is careful about how she mixes her own analysis and reflection as a writer with the events she is telling as a narrator. The story tends to come in waves of information, and between waves Jeanne takes a step back and tells us what she thought of things as they were happening and how she thinks of them now. These moments of reflection combined with the way Jeanne freely jumps in time within chapters give the impression that she is writing and commenting on things at the same time that she is remembering them. This narrative style fits with the nature of the work, which focuses in part on coming to terms with one’s memories.
Jeanne’s observational tone derives partly from her age at the time of the internment. Throughout the memoir she emphasizes that she was young at the time and did not really understand the war or the real motives behind the camp. As a young girl she is unaware that U.S. fear of Japanese people is behind her family’s imprisonment. In fact, she does not see the camp as imprisonment at all, but rather as an adventure. As the story goes on and Jeanne gets older, however, her view of the world shifts drastically. The violent change in her father during the internment years and her later discovery of the unspoken prejudice of the world to which she returns reveals to her that the world is more complicated than she originally realized. Farewell to Manzanar is a coming-of-age story, and Wakatsuki begins by describing events simply and innocently, much as a child would see them. The discoveries she makes about herself during and after her time at Manzanar give the memoir its structure and allow us to chart Wakatsuki’s progress from girl to teenager to woman. The work is a way for Wakatsuki to come to terms with herself, and we must understand how unaware of her ethnicity she was as a child in order to appreciate the maturity she shows later in struggling with prejudice.
Jeanne’s experiences with prejudice in her school life after the war constitute the main content of her memoir and develop some of the work’s most important themes, such as the danger of racial stereotypes and the difficulty of self-discovery. These two themes converge in her story, for she can discover her true self only by overcoming prejudice and setting aside her own preconceptions about what it means to be either Japanese or American. Only at the carnival queen coronation ceremony at her high school in San Jose does she begin to understand that until she stops pretending to be what she is not, she will never be able to understand who she is.
Papa, one of the most complex characters in Farewell to Manzanar, is the only character besides Jeanne whose development we see from beginning to end. Wakatsuki uses the character of Papa to explore one of the principal themes of her work: the danger of judging an individual by ethnicity alone. Jeanne’s own story addresses this theme as well, but Papa’s experiences give us a different and more tragic view of its significance. Jeanne is Japanese by heritage but American by birth, so she really belongs to both Japan and America. Papa, on the other hand, chose to leave his homeland to become a noncitizen in the United States, so in a sense, he belongs nowhere. He has virtually ceased to exist in Japan, where his family buried his memory nine years after his departure. On the other hand, as a noncitizen in the United States he is one of the lowest people in the social order. The only things he has to hold on to are his family, business, house, and pride in having made something of himself in the United States despite the odds stacked against him. His imprisonment, together with the charge of disloyalty leveled at him at Fort Lincoln, strips him of his possessions, tears his family apart, and worst of all, turns his pride into bitterness and anger. He is a tragic figure, and one of the reasons that Wakatsuki rarely places blame in her memoir is that she prefers to discuss the injustice of the internment by showing the extent to which it destroyed the loving man that was once her father.
Woody is a foil to Papa: his attitudes and personal qualities contrast with and thereby accentuate Papa’s. Woody, for example, is always sure of his identity as an American and his responsibility to his family, unlike Papa, who has a complicated identity and who does not always act in the best interest of his family. Wakatsuki uses the frequent arguments between Woody and Papa to highlight the differences between the two men. Their discussion about the idea of Woody fighting in the war on the U.S. side exemplifies these differences. While Papa believes that fighting for the United States would mean fighting for a country that imprisoned him, Woody believes that it is his duty as a U.S. citizen to fight for his country. Having citizenship allows Woody access to jobs, licenses, and other opportunities that are closed to Papa, and he feels that service to his country is the price he must pay for the freedom he enjoys. Papa’s experiences during and after the war, on the other hand, disillusion him about his place in America.