The story takes place from spring 1942 until spring 1946. The five chapters are told from different family members’ points of view: first the woman/mother, next the girl/daughter, then the boy/son, next the combined points of view of the two children, and, finally, the man/father. The story begins in Berkeley, California, at the home of a Japanese-American family who has been in the United States for decades. Four months earlier, the father had been arrested by the FBI, and the mother, their son, and their daughter receive letters from him from a camp in Texas.
When the mother sees signs in the neighborhood instructing her to ready her children and a few essentials for travel, she goes home to pack. The day before they are to leave, the mother interacts with a store owner and buys a few things. She packs valuables in the basement and then kills a chicken for dinner. She gives the cat to the neighbors and kills the family dog with a shovel. When the children return from school, the mother prepares a chicken dinner and lets her daughter’s pet macaw fly out the window while she imagines her husband in the house with them. She has no idea what the future holds for any of them.
The mother, son, and daughter take a train to Utah after spending four months at the Tanforan horse track in San Francisco. The rocking of the train makes them nauseous, and they must lower their window shades at night and when they pass through cities. The daughter describes the other passengers as she strolls through the train and sees wild mustangs out her window. She recalls a family trip to Yosemite and throws a deck of cards out the window. She reads some of the postcards from her father. She wakes to the sound of broken glass as a brick flies through a train window. The train crosses into Utah at night, and they disembark in the town of Delta. They board a bus and arrive at Topaz, a desolate arrangement of tar-paper barracks. It is extremely dusty, hot, and blindingly bright. There are no trees or shade.
The son then describes the tedious details of their life in the internment camp: their small, shared room; the armed guards; the radio they brought from home; and the other residents whom they can easily hear day and night through the thin walls. They have no running water, they must line up for their meager meals, and the toilets are far away and shared. Here in the desert, the son dreams of water and his father, who still writes to them weekly. The son gets notes and gifts from a neighbor girl from home.
The children go to school. The son is haunted by memories of his father being taken away and his mother purging the house of everything Japanese. He has a pet tortoise that dies, and he plants a tulip bulb in a can that blooms in March. Winter brings frigid cold and snow, and the camp residents are issued oversized wool army surplus coats. The mother sinks into depression, seldom leaves her room, and refuses to eat. The boy’s sister becomes more distant and confused. A man is shot and killed by the guards. The father stops writing, and they have no idea why. When summer’s horrible heat returns, time seems to stand still, and the son tries to find new ways to spend his day. He fantasizes about his father’s return, always picturing him healthy, strong, and unchanged.
After three years and five months away, the mother, son, and daughter return. Their house in Berkeley has been ransacked, emptied, trashed, and defiled, and their mother’s rosebush is gone, but they welcome the smell of the ocean, the shade of their trees, and the water that runs from the faucet. With the $25 she is issued, the mother buys shoes, underwear, and a new mattress. They sleep downstairs, in the same configuration as they did in their tiny room in Utah, until someone throws a bottle through the window one night.
At school and in their neighborhood, they are shunned and made to feel ashamed for being Japanese. When money runs out, the mother goes to work cleaning houses and taking in laundry. Slowly, she repairs the house and buys new furnishings, including beds for each of them. In December, they receive a telegram that their father will return. They meet him at the train station, but he is nearly unrecognizable: thin, silent, aged, injured, and demoralized. He never returns to work and spends his days at home, sleeping poorly, puttering around, and reading while his wife continues to work hard outside the home. He is a broken man. In the spring, the children unsuccessfully search the neighborhood for their mother’s rosebush.
As the story concludes, the father offers a rambling confession—none of which is true—in which he lists outlandish crimes and assumes the persona of every Japanese person in their community. He begs for punishment and apologizes. He pleads for freedom and mercy.