Allison's Book Bag

Children of Manzanar by Heather Lindquist

Posted on: August 10, 2013

It’s surprising how a relatively unknown subject can get under one’s skin. It only took me two short evenings to read Children of Manzanar by Heather Lindquist. Yet its impact will last much longer, as indicated by the conversation I had afterwards with my husband. We were talking about suffering, which led to a discussion of wars, and then I started to share what I’d learned about Manzanar. Turns out, I had a lot to say about the topic. For such a small book (less than 150 pages), Children of Manzanar by Heather Lindquist makes a large emotional impact.

For this review, I’d like to discuss two aspects of Children of Manzanar. First is the format. It’s organized into five chapters, which tell the story of the Japanese American internment during World War II in chronological order. Each chapter contains an introduction that runs one to five pages. The remainder of each chapter is a mix of black-and-white photos and short quotes from people who were interned and from camp staff. With such a format, Children of Manzanar has a clinical museum feel to it. For me, that meant while it felt both informative, it also seemed too emotionally detached. Maybe the latter is necessary to an extent, given the serious topic. This said, the content is easy to digest and the photos and quotes are poignant. When all is said and done, the book succeeded in pulling me into this dark time in American history.

The second aspect of the book I wish to discuss is the content. As I have already mentioned, Children of Manzanar recounts the story of the Japanese American internment in a chronological order. The first chapter starts by telling how radically the life of Japanese Americans changed during World War II. Two months after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which authorized the U.S. military to round-up Japanese Americans and send them to internment camps. The three middle chapters explain how one of those camps, Manzanar, became both a community and a center of conflict. The final chapter ends by telling how the United States decided that Manzanar and camps like it had been a mistake and subsequently tried to fix what had been an extreme and shameful overreaction.

The coverage seems thorough enough and yet, especially as I studied the spreads with photos and quotes, I felt disconcerted by the discovery that happiness was to be found in the camp. Children went to school, had friends, and dated. Yes, there were paragraphs about the requirement of eight people per room that resulted in families living with strangers, and about the initial lack of education and employment. There were also paragraphs about the conflicts which arose between first-generation Japanese and their American-born children, and about the eventual controversy which arose over the demand for one segment of the population to prove their loyalty to the United States. However, although the Japanese Americans were confined, and sometimes conditions were miserable, there was also some attempt by those outside to provide some degree of normalcy for the camp’s inhabitants, and there was certainly a desire among those within the camp to go on with life. The camps were a mixture of misery and joy, and at times I struggled to connect the contradiction. Perhaps then, this is where the museum style succeeds, because it piqued my curiosity enough that I started researching outside sources.

At first glance, I felt only moderately impressed with Children of Manzanar. While it’s visually appealing, I wasn’t sure that the content was substantial enough. The answer turned out to be in the impact it left. A week after I first opened its cover, I’m still thinking about it. For example, I wonder what would happen if for some reason tomorrow, Canadians became an enemy of the United States. I also wonder how the United States should have reacted instead. Only as recently as September 11, 2001, America did face a similar situation. Was its reaction worse or better? My mind is full of questions, and so will yours be after you read Children of Manzanar.

My rating? Read it: Borrow from your library or a friend. It’s worth your time.

How would you rate this book?

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