Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Farewell to Manzanar by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston (book review)

Farewell to Manzanar is the true story of the trials one Japanese-American family faced when they were forced out of their home into the Japanese internment camp Manzanar in 1942. Jeanne Wakatsuki was only seven years old when she and her family left everything behind and began a whole new life in the desert behind barbed wire. At first, life is harsh and unfamiliar in this whole new environment, and even at the best of times it isn't great. But eventually, the inhabitants of Manzanar turn it into a thriving community with churches, schools, bands, and extracurriculars. For some people, Manzanar begins to feel similar to a home. But what will everyone do when the war ends, the camp closes down, and they are forced to start their lives over yet again?

This was an extremely moving book, a true story about love, loss, and a family slowly unraveling at the seams. If you want to learn about the WWII Japanese internment camps, this is a great book to start. It tells the real story of what went on and what life was like at the camps, behind barbed wire.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros (book review)

"I knew then I had to have a house. A real house. One I could point to. But this isn't it. The house on Mango Street isn't it."

And so twelve-year-old Esperanza begins her first year on Mango Street, the first time she and her family have ever had a real house. But it isn't a house that Esperanza feels proud of. She is ashamed of its creaky steps, the cracks in the walls, and the ordinary hallway stairs. She wants nothing more to escape from the barrio, the Latino neighborhood she and her family are now living, where men have all the power and the women around her are trapped in desperate situations from which they can't escape. Take Rafaela, whose boyfriend never allows her to leave the house for fear that she might run away with someone else. Or Sally, who married an abusive husband in order to escape her abusive father. Or Minerva, only a year or two older than Esperanza but already with a husband and two children. Esperanza doesn't want same fate to befall her as has these women. She wants to become someone independent, someone whose power is her own. Someone with a house that she can point to and feel pride. And over the course of a year on Mango Street, Esperanza learns a great deal more about herself and her dreams than she could ever have imagined.

This was a very good book. It was told in a series of short vignettes, none much more than three or four pages, all about Esperanza, her family, or other members of their community. Over the course of the book, which isn't very long, we learn a great deal about the protagonist and the culture she lives in. Esperanza is a complex and meaningful character whom one can really become connected to over the course of the book. The reader will also become attached to the various other characters Cisneros introduces throughout the course of the book, as well as their sad stories.

As far as plot goes, there isn't really a linear plot in this book. Basically, it follows Esperanza as she lives out one year in the barrio, suffering some great losses and finding out a lot about herself in the process. She makes friends and loses them, and struggles to deal with her growing interest in boys. During the course of the story, Esperanza's wish for independence conflicts with her wish for a boyfriend or husband. It soon becomes clear to her that, at least in the barrio, women cannot have one of these things without having to give up the other completely. At least not easily.