*SPOILER ALERT! PLOT AND KEY POINTS IN THIS REVIEW*
Cross cultural, forbidden, young love, set against the painful backdrop of World War II and the Japanese internment camps.
Henry’s family proudly identified themselves as Chinese. Keiko’s family proudly identified themselves as Americans. Keiko’s English was flawless, learned from birth. Henry still had trouble with many of his words.
They strike up a friendship because they’re both granted a scholarship to a prestigious middle school, a scholarship that has them serving lunch behind the counter to their white classmates. The racial prejudice is thick. Henry wears a button that reads “I am Chinese” to make certain no one associates him with the Japanese.
But then there’s Keiko, who draws beautiful pictures and loves jazz, a musical taste that Henry’s parents don’t understand or appreciate in their son.
A pre-Internment Camp depiction of Seattle leaves readers with a chilled sense of loss. The international district of this city once included a Japantown, filled with families and business who were forced to shut down and leave to the “safer” internment camps. Henry watched Keiko’s entire family leave in this exodus, helpless to stop them, afraid that he would be herded in among them for his similar physical appearance.
Love and friendship are one and the same in this story. The faithfulness of young hearts and first love is another sings throughout this piece. Their relationship is accepted wholeheartedly by Keiko’s family and despised and forbidden by Henry’s.
But with Keiko living hours away in an internment camp and the frustration of letter writing, Henry grows discouraged and bitter. She is too busy for him. She’s moving on. Nevertheless, a stubborn gene keeps him writing. So much, in fact, that the mail clerk takes notice of Henry’s devotion and mentions that Keiko must be some special girl.
The war ends and Henry, discouraged by the silence he’s received from Keiko, has moved on with his life. He’s begun dating a beautiful Chinese girl named Ethel, a girl who his parents can approve of. It’s on the day that the war officially ends that he proposes to Ethel, amidst the blitz of fireworks.
Soon after, his mother calls him home to his dying father, who confesses to Henry that he’d prevented all of his letters from reaching Keiko, through pulling strings at the post office. Ethel was innocent of this entire deception, but the harm was done:her heart was Henry’s, and Keiko’s own had likely fallen into bitter numbness, just like Henry’s had done.
He marries Ethel, has a son with her, and loses her many years later to cancer. He hears about an old hotel that was being renovated from top to bottom that had announced it found in its basement a huge stockpile of belongings that had been stashed there by Japanese families relocating to the internment camps.
He remembers a record that he and Keiko had bought together after listening to jazz one special stolen night together. Without Ethel there to be grieved by his long-lost love, he seeks to recover what was lost.
His journey finally takes him to his son, who is planning to marry a blonde American girl, something that Henry can’t help but celebrate. His son searches around and finds a woman who has changed her name to Kay, but is most certainly the Keiko that Henry once knew. And so Henry travels to New York, free at last to pursue what he had been too frightened to and too discouraged to follow the first time.
The first thing he says,when they meet again, is a Japanese phrase that he learned as a boy to tell her how beautiful she was. He learned it in her people’s language and only to his chagrin did he realize she did not speak Japanese but English, the language of her homeland, America.
This story ends on a sweet, but incomplete note. It seemed to me that the point of Henry finding Keiko at the end of his long search (his adult search through the city and through the pain and memories of his past) was to reconcile with her. There has been a lot of confusion and misunderstanding, and the reader wants to see this resolved, at least in part. All we get, at the closing, is the Japanese phrase that Henry learned for her. This felt like a relational and emotional letdown.
The book reads like a very detailed memory. The sights, sounds, and smells of pre-WWII Seattle are fascinating, especially for natives like myself who were born there after the events took place. The pace was a bit slow, and the sense of urgency seemed underplayed.
I would have enjoyed seeing young Henry, in particular more, desperate and confused about things that were happening, struggling more against the strict confines of his parents. Likewise, I would have liked to see the older Henry more tortured by the memory of Keiko haunting him after Ethel’s death. As it currently is, there seemed to be a vague remorse that hung over both the young Henry and the old, but nothing painful enough to feel.
The most poignant moment of this book is the day the crowds fill the streets to celebrate the end of the war and Henry decides to commit himself entirely to a new life with Ethel by proposing to her. In that moment, just a few seconds after crossing the point of no return, Henry thinks he sees Keiko staring at him among the crowd.
This was the first time my heart twisted with real pain and suffering for him. I wanted to experience that same moment of forgiveness and renewal in the book’s final pages.
Have you read this book? What was your reaction to the ending?