Summary—Almost a Family
Jeanne notices that after a few weeks, her family stops eating together in mess halls. She remembers that before entering the camp, her family used to enjoy noisy, homegrown meals around a large, round wooden table. Now, however, Granny is too weak to go to the mess hall, and Jeanne’s older siblings often eat with friends in other mess halls where the food is better, while the younger brothers make a game of trying to eat in as many different mess halls as possible in a single meal period. Jeanne and Kiyo often eat with other children, away from the adults. Wakatsuki notes that later in the war, sociologists noticed the division occurring within families, and the camp authorities tried unsuccessfully to force families to eat together. But camp life accelerated the disintegration of the Wakatsuki family—the barracks were too small for Mama to cook in, and there was no privacy. Wakatsuki says that the closing of the camps made this fragmentation worse, since the older children moved away and the remaining family members had to eat in shifts in a tiny apartment. She adds that after being released, she wrote a paper for her journalism class about how her family used to catch and eat fish together at their home in Ocean Park. She closed the paper by saying that she wanted to remember this experience because she knew she would never be able to have it again.
Back in the camp, a call goes out for volunteer workers, and many Japanese sign up. Jeanne’s brothers sign up as carpenters, roofers, and reservoir crewmembers, and Mama begins to earn nineteen dollars a month as a dietician helping the camp cooks. She works in order to pay the warehouse in Los Angeles, where she has stored the family furniture. She worries about Papa, from whom she receives occasional letters, but starts to ignore Jeanne. Jeanne looks for attention elsewhere and begins to observe the other people in camp. In hot weather she watches the 10,000 people walking around the camp at night. She pays special attention to a half-black woman who is masquerading as Japanese to stay with her husband; an aristocratic woman who whitens her face with rice flour; a pair of pale, thin-lipped nurses who look like traditional Japanese kabuki theater actors; and Japanese nuns. The nuns run an orphanage in the camp with Father Steinbeck, who is white, and they nearly convert Jeanne to Catholicism before Papa intervenes. Jeanne is attracted to the stories of saints and martyrs, and spends nearly every afternoon and all day Sunday with the sisters. Walking home in the hot sun, she likes to imagine that she too is suffering with the martyrs. One day, however, she suffers sunstroke and does not go back to her religious study for a month.
Just before Jeanne’s bout of sunstroke, Papa returns to Manzanar, and the whole family goes out to greet him. Woody’s wife, Chizu, is absent because she has just given birth to a son, whom she has named George in honor of Papa’s return. When the bus door opens, the first thing Jeanne sees is a cane. Papa is thin, and withered, and he favors his right leg. He and the family look at each other in silence, and only Jeanne has the courage to approach him. She runs to him, hugs his legs, and begins to cry.
Wakatsuki concentrates her memoir on her family’s breakup rather than on the war itself because the disintegration of her family’s structure is much closer to her heart. In general, young Jeanne focuses on immediate concerns rather than broad ones. Instead of blaming the war or the government for her family’s estrangement, for example, she specifically blames the mess hall lifestyle that the camp forces her family to adopt. Before the war, mealtime, with Papa at its head, was the most important part of her family life, but now Papa is gone and impersonal mess halls have replaced the family’s big, wooden dinner table. However, the family members themselves contribute to their own breakup. Her descriptions of how her various siblings eat in various mess halls reveals her pain at her family’s lack of effort to stay together in Papa’s absence. Ironically, the government itself tries to reestablish family life by requiring families to eat together. Unfortunately, in a camp of 10,000 people, where many family members are missing, forcing families together is as impossible as it is absurd. For Wakatsuki, the true tragedy of Manzanar is not the abstract injustice of imprisoning a people but that it stripped her of something very precious to her—her happy family.
Though the Wakatsuki’s are eager to see Papa again, his return proves a foreshadowing of bad things to come. So many hardships have beset the family during Papa’s absence that it seems as though his arrival should herald a return to normalcy. His arrival does briefly counteract the disintegration of the family, as most of the family comes out together to welcome him. Even Woody’s wife, Chizu, who has just given birth, pays homage to Papa by naming her son after him. The family is united in their excitement, but when the bus door opens, their expectations are dimmed. The first thing they see of Papa is a cane, a sign of lameness and an immediate indication that he has changed for the worse. Wakatsuki describes him as gaunt and “wilted as his shirt,” a completely different man from the gruff and strong sailor she describes in “What is Pearl Harbor?” This physical change reflects a deeper change in him, and the fact that only Jeanne runs to meet him demonstrates her continuing naïveté with regard to the war and the internment. She can see him only as the same man she has always known him to be, and only later does she realize the deep changes that his time in Fort Lincoln brought about in him.
Wakatsuki’s focus on her family’s struggle to cope with their estrangement rather than on the estrangement itself suggests that working through difficulties was a more important part of life at Manzanar than were the difficulties themselves. The narrative structure of “Almost a Family” is unusual in that it glosses over the details of the family’s collapse. We might expect Wakatsuki to show us these dramatic moments, but she focuses instead on the family at its lowest point. In the middle of the chapter, for example, the family members are almost all working and seem to have found ways to fill the void left by their damaged family life. Jeanne, specifically, amuses herself by wandering the camp and watching the faces of various strangers. With Papa’s return, the family reassembles and tries to reconstruct a version of itself around him. But the Wakatsukis, and we as well, soon realize that this effort is futile. The depressing significance of the chapter’s title, “Almost a Family,” becomes clear: no matter how much they might try to become a functional family again, the Wakatsukis will never be able to repair the damage the camps have done.
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