The memoir Farewell to Manzanar (1973) recounts the experiences of the Wakatsuki family at an American internment camp for Japanese-Americans during World War II. In this excerpt, Jeanne Wakatsuki, just seven years old at the time of her imprisonment, provides a clear-eyed description of the "shack" in which the family was forced to live for almost three years.
From Farewell to Manzanar*
by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and James D. Houston
After dinner we were taken to Block 16, a cluster of fifteen barracks that had just been finished a day or so earlier--although finished was hardly the word for it. The shacks were built of one thickness of pine planking covered with tarpaper. They sat on concrete footings, with about two feet of open space between the floorboards and the ground. Gaps showed between the planks, and as the weeks passed and the green wood dried out, the gaps widened. Knotholes gaped in the uncovered floor.
Each barracks was divided into six units, sixteen by twenty feet, about the size of a living room, with one bare bulb hanging from the ceiling and an oil stove for heat. We were assigned two of these for the twelve people in our family group; and our official family “number” was enlarged by three digits--16 plus the number of this barracks. We were issued steel army cots, two brown army blankets each, and some mattress covers, which my brothers stuffed with straw.
The first task was to divide up what space we had for sleeping. Bill and Woody contributed a blanket each and partitioned off the first room: one side for Bill and Tomi, one side for Woody and Chizu and their baby girl. Woody also got the stove, for heating formulas.
The people who had it hardest during the first few months were young couples, many of whom had married just before the evacuation began, in order not to be separated and sent to different camps. Our two rooms were crowded, but at least it was all in the family. My oldest sister and her husband were shoved into one of those sixteen-by-twenty-foot compartments with six people they had never seen before--two other couples, one recently married like themselves, the other with two teenage boys. Partitioning off a room like that wasn't easy. It was bitter cold when we arrived, and the wind did not abate. All they had to use for room dividers were those army blankets, two of which were barely enough to keep one person warm. They argued over whose blanket should be sacrificed and later argued about noise at night--the parents wanted their boys asleep by 9:00 p.m.--and they continued arguing over matters like that for six months, until my sister and her husband left to harvest sugar beets in Idaho. It was grueling work up there, and wages were pitiful, but when the call came through camp for workers to alleviate the wartime labor shortage, it sounded better than their life at Manzanar. They knew they'd have, if nothing else, a room, perhaps a cabin of their own.
*The memoir Farewell to Manzanar by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and James D. Houston was originally published by Houghton Mifflin in 1973. It is currently available in a paperback edition published by Bantam Books.