Manzanar camp novel explores moral culpability during World War II

A sweeping novel tells of a California ranching family in the 1940s, and the building of Manzanar camp to detain Japanese American citizens. 

"Properties of Thirst," by Marianne Wiggins, Simon & Schuster, 544 pp.

Thirst embeds itself – in the body, in the landscape, in consciousness – with a slow creep. There’s the recognition of it taking hold, the yearning for refreshment, the relief when drenching rains arrive. 

These “properties of thirst” come vividly alive in Marianne Wiggins’ expansive, thoroughly engaging new novel of the same name. A story of family, responsibility, and the tug of heritage, it applauds decency and determination while weighing the roles of individuals in collective wrongs.

A finalist for both a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award, Wiggins has earned accolades ranging from the Whiting Writers’ Award to an NEA grant. She’s been described as writing with “a bold intelligence and an ear for hidden comedy,” praise that certainly applies to “Properties of Thirst.”

In the French language, one has thirst, like a shadow or an ache. In the parched Owens Valley of 1940s California where much of the story takes place, the land chafes and buckles beneath this burden of thirst. The water – never plentiful, but historically sufficient – has been redirected south to slake the swell of Los Angeles. All but one ranching family is gone.

And what a family it is: strong-willed, capable, striving and stubborn – and yes, thirsting: for solace, for answers, for its role in the community. At its head looms Rocky, a scion of East Coast wealth who opts to carve a new life out West from the wind-swept soil abutting the Eastern Sierra. His twin sister, Cas – unfussy, steady, “six-three in her stockings” – serves as de facto parent to Rocky’s children, Sunny and Stryker, who are also twins. Since his wife’s death, Rocky fills his days wandering the foothills with his dogs and building a legal case against the Los Angeles water thieves. 

Sunny and Stryker – motherless since the age of 3 – are more yin and yang than peas in a pod. Stryker, brash and fearless, blames his father for the tragic loss of their mother. Sunny is shaped by yearning rather than rage. She pages through her mother’s cookbooks for clues to her qualities and quirks. In the process, Sunny discovers a passion – and a talent – for cooking; it’s one of the novel’s many satisfying (and sometimes lip-smacking) subplots. 

The novel opens with crushing news from the outside world. Pearl Harbor has been bombed and Stryker – now a young adult and estranged from his father but in touch with Sunny – is stationed in Honolulu with the Navy. It’s a gut punch for the family: Did he survive? 

The second chapter introduces a passel of new characters, including a young Army private who uses ethnic slurs and racist language to describe Japanese and Jewish people. Wiggins warns in an author’s note that she deliberately chose to use terms that were common during the era. 

Here, readers meet Schiff, a mid-20s, first-generation Jewish Chicagoan, en route to Owens Valley as a Department of the Interior functionary. His wartime assignment: establish the Manzanar camp to detain 10,000 Japanese American citizens living in the Western United States.

The enormity of the task, as well as its moral implications, weighs on Schiff; as a Jew in the Midwest he’s encountered prejudice and ignorance – and he’s smart enough to recognize problematic policies when he sees them. “My worry is doing right by all these people,” he confesses to two locals upon reaching Lone Pine, near where the camp is to be established. 

The logistics of building and opening Manzanar, and then tending to the needs of the thousands of families forced to survive its inhospitable expanse, make for engrossing reading. Also satisfying are the book’s myriad side stories: the mystery of Sunny’s first love, the fate of Rocky’s ranch, the search for Stryker, Schiff’s postwar deployment to Japan. The novel stretches wide and deep. 

While much of the book grapples with serious issues, there’s humor, too, in its pages. “Surely there are Jews back home in Alabama,” Schiff says to his Southern-born driver on their way to the valley. “Sir, yes, sir. But only in the Bible. Sir,” comes the reply.

Wiggins’ writing is observant, thoughtful, and willing to wrestle. It’s also a joy. Packed with parentheticals and humming with homonyms, it glides – seamlessly, for the most part – between the book’s present and its characters’ many pasts. This is digression at its finest. Wiggins’ dialogue is similarly fluid. What’s declared aloud versus what’s admitted in thought isn’t always obvious. The style can be disconcerting, but also offers insights and, often, laughs. 

The last quarter of the novel, while true to the story and its characters, lacks some of the spark and focus of its earlier sections. The reason for this disjointedness is explained in the afterword (as well as in much of the book’s publicity). The author’s daughter, Lara Porzak, worked to get the mostly finished manuscript to publication after Wiggins had a stroke. Porzak was committed to helping her mother not only recover, but complete the book. “Physical disabilities,” Porzak has said, “are not disabilities of spirit. Or talent.”

Perhaps the final properties of thirst, once quenched, are gratitude for the resolution – and awe at overcoming the challenge.

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