Sunday, January 9, 2011
This is the story of Henry Lee, a first generation Chinese American who grew up in war time Seattle. The narrative alternates seamlessly between 1980s and the 1940’s. In 1985 Henry is a middle aged widower who has recently lost his wife after a long illness where he was her primary care giver. He has a college age son, Marty, with whom he has difficulty communicating. As he walks through the International district of Seattle he comes upon the Panama Hotel, a long shuttered landmark from old Japantown. The Panama Hotel is being renovated and during the renovation artifacts from the war years are uncovered. The hotel bestirs memories of his boyhood and a friendship he had with Keiko Okabe a Japanese American girl. Their unlikely friendship began when both were scholarship students in a school where they were ostracized because of their ethnicity. They share a love of American jazz and a friendship with a local sax player, Sheldon. Keiko is a budding artist and sketches people and sites in Seattle. Henry’s parents are strong Chinese nationalists, pro-American and bitterly opposed to the Japanese. Henry defies his parents in maintaining this relationship even as Keiko and her family are interred in “relocation” camps. Henry’s relationship with his father is damaged because of his continued attachment to Keiko. In 1985 Henry now searches for remnants of their relationship in the basement of the Panama Hotel. In engaging his son and his son’s fiancée in this search, both learn things about each other that enable them to strengthen their relationship.
This is essentially a story about relationships enriched with the events of wartime Seattle. The author does a splendid job in recreating the events around war time internment of Japanese Americans. I appreciated that the author presented these events in non-judgmental way, letting the racism and prejudices of times speak for themselves. Chinese Americans routinely wore buttons that said “I am Chinese” to distinguish themselves from the Japanese in Seattle. The impact on the removal of the Japanese from the city is dramatic and well described. You really get the sense of impact this event had on the city and its people both Japanese and others.
The relationships make up the meat of this story. The interactions between Henry and his father and Henry and his son are fascinating. Immigrant families where the parents desire to have their children become Americans pitted against their fears that all the customs from the old countries will not be valued provide fertile ground for the storyteller. Additionally the relationship of Henry and Keiko is a good recounting of a first romance. Overall though I did think the writing was a little uninspired and clichéd and that for me made this a good but not great novel.
I do recommend this debut novel, it is a well told story of family, romance and history that will stick with you long after the last page is read.
I read a copy of this book borrowed from The Free Library of Philadelphia.