On a vacation to Death Valley National Park one Spring Break, my family and I made a visit to Manzanar National Historic Site. Manzanar was one of ten War Relocation Centers, where 122,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry, the majority of whom were United States citizens, were incarcerated in the aftermath of the Pearl Harbor attack. Executive Order 9066, signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, allowed civilians to be excluded from military areas. Army General John DeWitt soon issued Public Proclamation 4, which ordered the evacuation and detention of Japanese Americans from the military area encompassing the western United States with 48 hours notice.
I knew the history, but until that day at Manzanar I didn’t truly feel the emotion. The wind was strong, painfully cold, and blowing sand along with it. I could imagine I heard cheering from the baseball fields where the detainees played to retain some normalcy and community, trickling from the streams of the gardens built to beautify the stark landscape, and mourning from the cemetery for the 145 people who didn’t survive until the war was over. It was injustice, tragedy, and resilience all on display in one small chunk of desert.
If you have a chance to visit, it’s a powerful experience. In the meantime, here are some books about life as an incarcerated Japanese American during World War II.
- American Sutra: A Story of Faith and Freedom in the Second World War by Duncan R. Williams. Despite having everything they own taken away and being incarcerated, Japanese-American Buddhists made an inspiring stand for religious freedom in their insistence that they could be both Buddhist and American.
- Child Prisoner in American Concentration Camps by Mako Nakagawa. In her memoir, Mako recalls with a child's innocence stories of life in the camps from age five through nine, along with the insights she gained as an adult looking back on this grave injustice.
- Un-American: The Incarceration of Japanese Americans During World War II by Richard Cahan. A visual history of life in the camps, including interviews with many people reflecting on their experiences.
- Impounded: Dorothea Lange and the Censored Images of Japanese American Internment by Dorothea Lange. Lange was hired by the War Relocation Authority to document the uprooting and incarceration of Japanese Americans. This book shows a small selection of her photos that are now owned by the National Archives.
- The Eagles of Heart Mountain: A True Story of Football, Incarceration, and Resistance in World War II America by Bradford Pearson. The inspiring story of the high school football team of Heart Mountain War Relocation Center, who went undefeated while facing racism and the threat of being drafted.
- We Hereby Refuse: Japanese American Resistance to Wartime Incarceration by Frank Abe. A graphic novel that looks at acts of resistance within the Japanese American World War II incarceration.
May is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month and there are so many stories of the challenges faced and contributions made by Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Other Pacific Islanders. Find additional books and resources here.
Library tip of the month: You can print, copy, scan or fax at your local library. If you don’t have the equipment you need at home, we can help. Ask staff to help you get started if you need assistance. Small charges apply for copying or for large print jobs.
Janet Alder is Marketing and Communications Coordinator with Fort Vancouver Regional Libraries, which has 15 locations in Clark, Skamania, Klickitat, and Cowlitz Counties. Call 360-906-5000 or visit the library district website for more information.
A version of this column first appeared in The Messenger, May 2023.
Find more book columns in our Off the Shelf blog.