There are not many love stories that would qualify for a “G” rating but this novel would be one of them. When I say it rates a “G”, I don’t mean that in a negative sense at all. This book was a breath of fresh air, a story of friendship and young love that spans decades.
In 1986, Henry Lee joins a crowd outside the Panama Hotel, once the gateway to Seattle’s Japantown. It has been boarded up for decades, but now the new owner has discovered the belongings of Japanese families who were sent to internment camps during World War II. As the owner displays and unfurls a Japanese parasol, Henry, a Chinese American, remembers a young Japanese American girl from his childhood in the 1940s- Keiko Okabe, with whom he forged a bond of friendship and innocent love that transcended the prejudices of their Old World ancestors. After Keiko and her family were evacuated to the internment camps, she and Henry could only hope that their promise to each other would be kept. Now, forty years later, Henry explores the hotel’s basement for the Okabe family’s belongings and for a long-lost object whose value he cannot even begin to measure. His search will take him on a journey to revisit the sacrifices he has made for family, for love, for country.
This novel follows Henry throughout the years, alternating between young Henry in the 1940s and the adult Henry in 1986. The simple one or two word chapter titles give you a peek at what’s ahead for you in the chapter. Sometimes when a book alternates between two different times in a person’s life it feeels disjointed and hard to follow. That is not the case with this book. The chapters from the 40’s were dependent on the chapters from the 80’s and vice versa.
Henry meets Keiko when they are both 12 at a special school they have earned scholarships to. Being the only two Asians in an all white school they form a special bond and it matters to neither of them that one of them is Chinese and one of them is Japanese. It matters to Henry’s father though, who insists that Henry wear an “I am Chinese” button to distinguish him from the Japanese people who live in Japantown just a few blocks from them. Henry’s father forbids him to have anything to do with the Japanese who are declared the mortal enemy. Henry however, defies his father and Keiko and him not only work together after school but meet in the park on Saturdays and walk the streets of forbidden Japantown. From a school friendship to a tender love Henry and Keiko vow to wait for each other always.
What follows is a story of love and loss, waiting and moving on, disappointment and hope, and a beautifully written novel that transcends time.