Henry Lee comes upon a crowd gathered outside the Panama Hotel, once the gateway to Seattle’s Japantown. It has been boarded up for decades, but now the new owner has made an incredible discovery: the belongings of Japanese families, left when they were rounded up and sent to internment camps during World War II. As Henry looks on, the owner opens a Japanese parasol.
This simple act takes old Henry Lee back to the 1940s, at the height of the war, when young Henry’s world is a jumble of confusion and excitement, and to his father, who is obsessed with the war in China and having Henry grow up American. While “scholarshipping” at the exclusive Rainier Elementary, where the white kids ignore him, Henry meets Keiko Okabe, a young Japanese American student. Amid the chaos of blackouts, curfews, and FBI raids, Henry and Keiko forge a bond of friendship – and innocent love – that transcends the long-standing prejudices of their Old World ancestors. And after Keiko and her family are swept up in the evacuations to the internment camps, she and Henry are left only with the hope that the war will end, and that their promise to each other will be kept.
Forty years later, Henry Lee is certain that the parasol belonged to Keiko. In the hotel’s dark dusty basement he begins looking for signs of the Okabe family’s belongings and for a long-lost object whose value he cannot begin to measure. Now a widower, Henry is still trying to find his voice – words that might explain the actions of his nationalistic father; words that might bridge the gap between him and his modern, Chinese American son; words that might help him confront the choices he made many years ago.
***** Review *****
Henry Lee is a grown man nearing the end of his life. He has recently lost his wife to cancer and struggles to bridge the gap in his relationship with his college-attending son. One day he comes upon artifacts being unearthed from inside the Panama Hotel, and he is thrown back into a swirl of memories from his childhood, from a time when he promised to protect a family’s most precious possessions. Henry reflects on his friendship with Keiko, and he continues to sift through the remains in the Panama Hotel, looking for the belongings of Keiko and her family, and enlists his son and his girlfriend to assist him…while he slowly tells his story of friendship, defiance, and commitment to his own son.
Henry – a young Chinese-American boy torn in a world of white vs. Chinese. vs. Japanese
Sheldon – a black Jazz player Henry befriends
Keiko – a young Japanese-American girl who ends up attending Henry’s all-white school
Ms. Beatty – the school cook responsible for Henry and Keiko’s scholarshipping duties at school
Marty – Henry’s privileged son; Chinese-American living in a modern world
Samantha – Marty’s Caucasion girlfriend
He walked to school each day, going upstream against a sea of Chinese kids who called him “white devil.” He worked in the school kitchen as white devils called him “yellow.”
Prosperity didn’t seem to reach locals like Sheldon. He was a polished jazz player, whose poverty had less to do with his musical ability and more to do with his color. Henry had liked him immediately. Not because they both were outcasts, although if he really thought about it, that might have had a ring of truth to it – no, he liked him because of his music. Henry didn’t know what jazz was, he knew only it was something his parents didn’t listen to, and that made him like it even more.
He thought about those three Japanese couple laying facedown on the dirty floor of the Black Elks Club in their evening finery. Being hauled out and jailed somewhere. He stared back at Mr. Preston, a man trying to buy land out from under families who were now burning their most precious possessions to keep from being called traitors or spies.
The Highs and Lows
- Henry’s Inner Conflict. Henry is most conflicted in following his father’s rules and expectations. He ends up doing things that outright defy his father, and others that are done on the sly. Regardless, Henry spends three years being ignored by his father entirely, and told during such highly emotional times that he is a stranger, that he is dead to his father. Henry must choose between what is right and his father’s hatred for the Japanese. For a highly traditional family, it is not something that is easy for Henry, but it is something he must do.
- + Keiko. She is such a sweetheart with such a love for life. She is all things bright and warm and fun and loving for Henry. She makes him feel alive and like there is more outside his father’s household. She stalwartly stands up for who she is – Japanese-American. Despite several instances when Henry could have saved Keiko from her fate by wearing his “I’m Chinese” button, Keiko refused. She endured the unjust punishment on her heritage.
- – Henry’s Father. Henry’s father migrated to the United States at age 13, after having quit school. He works in the neighborhood fighting to protect the Chinese and their cause. He fights for China on US soil. He fights for China in China. He fights for China in Japan and in Russia. He does everything possible on the ground in the US to support his cause, and he is a highly respected individual in this community.
- Marty. Marty’s appearance at the beginning of the book painted him as a disgustingly privileged young American boy living it up at college. As the book goes on, though, and Henry’s relationship with his son deepens, there is more to Marty than meets the eye. Henry is so afraid that his son will not approve of his childhood friendship with Keiko that he at first does not want to tell their story for fear of tarnishing his late wife’s memory, but Marty is a young man who believes in happiness.
- Fathers and Sons. Henry mentions on more than one occasion his own perspective of his relationship with his father, comparable to a widening gulf with no conversation and very little reaction. At one point, he realizes he had enacted and enforced the same type of relationship with his own son, continuing the cycle, and makes a conscious choice not to.
- Ms. Beatty. The school kitchen cook is more than meets the eye. She seems like a lazy, smoking white woman with little regard for the Asians working in her kitchen, but nothing could be further from the truth. When things get really sticky for Henry or Keiko, Ms. Beatty is there. She shows up the white kids who picked on Henry and Keiko. When Keiko is gone and in the internment camp, Ms. Beatty finds a way for Henry to get to her. Turns out Ms. Beatty has much at stake like Henry and Keiko. She’s just doing what she can.
- Racism, Prejudices and People of Color. Yes, this book has it all: African-Americans, Chinese-Americans and Japanese-Americans in a time when all were shunned and unwanted in a homogeneous white society. They are left on the fringes, and even turn against one another – at least, the Chinese against the Japanese. They must make the clear distinction they are not Japanese, hence the “I am Chinese” button Henry’s father requires him to wear.
- The Friendship. Henry and Keiko have such a beautiful childhood friendship. True, it is forged on the fringes of nonacceptance, exclusion and rejection by attending an all-white school – and having to scholarshipping through it.
- Power of the Words. The language and images that Ford paints are absolutely beautiful. She creates such a world of nostalgia that forces the reader to reminisce with Henry, and fall in love alongside him.
When Henry takes Keiko to the Black Elks Club, it is such a beautiful scene. I love it.
Recommendation – Buy, Borrow or Skip?
Buy it. This is not one to skip past, and I definitely wouldn’t borrow it.
***** About the Author *****
My name is James. Yes, I’m a dude.
I’m also the New York Times bestselling author of Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet—which was, in no particular order, an IndieBound NEXT List Selection, a Borders Original Voices Selection, a Barnes & Noble Book Club Selection, Pennie’s Pick at Costco, a Target Bookmarked Club Pick, and a National Bestseller. It was also named the #1 Book Club Pick for Fall 2009/Winter 2010 by the American Booksellers Association.
In addition, Hotel has been translated into 34 languages. I’m still holding out for Klingon (that’s when you know you’ve made it).
I’m an alumnus of the Squaw Valley Community of Writers and a survivor of Orson Scott Card’s Literary Bootcamp.