This novel, Ford’s first, (I could not resist the title!) is a tender love story that survives for decades after beginning during the tumultuous years of World War II. Set in Seattle, it concerns Henry Lee, a shy young Chinese boy with unhappy life circumstances, and Keiko, a Japanese schoolmate. Mainly on the West Coast, Japanese families are uprooted from their homes and businesses with almost no notice and sent to detention camps.
Henry’s father hates the Japanese, not because of Pearl Harbor, but for their invasion of his native China. He insists that Henry speak only English at home, even if neither parent can understand. And Henry must attend an all-white school where he is teased and bullied mercilessly as the only Asian. His father makes him wear a button stating “I am Chinese,” which only brings more torment.
Keiko and her family are sympathetic to Henry, but then her family is relocated and the story centers on Henry’s desperate attempt to find her again.
Chapter by chapter, the story shifts between Henry’s childhood and the dramatic events 40 years later when the stately old Panama Hotel that marked the border between Seattle’s Japantown and the neighboring Chinatown is sold to a new owner. The belongings of scores of relocated Japanese families are uncovered in the basement. Henry recognizes some of them as Keiko’s and determines to find her. (At this point Henry is 56 years old, but the author describes him as “old Henry.”)
A special friend is Sheldon, a black jazz musician who plays the saxophone on the streets, or in clubs when he gets a gig. He and Henry bond over their mutual love of music, and Sheldon provides the understanding that is missing in Henry’s family. He helps Henry in his decision to search for Keiko, a long and seemingly impossible undertaking.
Universal themes are introduced, including the disconnect between fathers and sons, family traditions set in stone, dysfunctional family members, love and loyalty and promises kept.
Ford brings the ending of this story to a valid and satisfactory resolution, without seeming contrived. A lovely story that is touching throughout, and I’m eager to read his forthcoming next novel.