Set in World War II Seattle, author Jamie Ford explores the United States’ internment of Japanese Americans through this well-written historical fiction novel. Henry is a Chinese boy assigned to an all-white middle school on scholarship (meaning he gets to serve the kids in the cafeteria while they disparage his heritage). His parents are proud, his friends call him the white devil and his classmates taunt him. His only friends are Sheldon, an African American saxophone player, and Keiko, a new girl at his school who is Japanese. Henry is confused about who he should be at a time when identity is important to the American public and government. He is expected to be Chinese, an identity treasured by his father, a nationalist who sends money home to fight the Japanese attack on his homeland. His parents want him to speak English at home even though they do not understand the language. His parents force him to wear a button proclaiming “I am Chinese” as protection from anti-Japanese backlash. Like Henry, Keiko was born in the United States. When Keiko sees his button, she tells him “I am American”. Henry has truly found a friend in Keiko. They share a love of jazz and she shows him her beautiful sketches of Seattle life. He likes her so much, he rejects his father’s low opinion of Japanese and is horrified at the government mandated internment of Japanese Americans.
As an adult, Henry is mourning the loss of his wife after a long illness and stubbornly longs for a closer relationship with his son, Marty. When he hears that the belongings of Japanese Americans have been discovered in the basement of the Panama Hotel his mind immediately turns to memories of his friend Keiko. He knows that her family stored their more treasured belongings there meaning to retrieve them after the war. Henry lost track of Keiko and her family. Marty and his new fiance (a surprise to Henry, less so that she is not Chinese) help Henry search for a valuable jazz record in the pile of assorted and very dusty personal items. When they uncover Keiko’s sketchbook, Marty and his fiance sense that there is more to the story.
This is an enduring story of love and friendship despite prejudices, obstacles and the passing of time.