Last Updated on October 4, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 672
The novel’s protagonist, Henry Lee, is an old man living in Seattle. At the start of the novel, he is stricken by grief due to the recent death of his wife. When he finds out that a number of items once belonging to Japanese American internees have been discovered in the Panama Hotel, he is inspired to search for his former friend and romantic partner, Keiko Okabe, from whom he was separated by the process of internment. He sets out on a journey to find her, accompanied by his son and his son's fiancée, Samantha. Mindful of how his own father’s hostility toward his relationship with Keiko had a negative impact on his life, Henry is careful to welcome Samantha into his family and to make his son aware of his autonomy in both his education and his personal life. In response, Marty and Samantha prove instrumental in helping Henry come to terms with his past.
The novel also features a narrative following Henry in his younger years, when he first meets Keiko. A dutiful son, the young Henry is initially determined to be a good American, as his father wants him to be. However, he is put off by the hostility he faces from his peers and from his society more broadly—hostility stemming from the fact that white Americans think Henry, who is Chinese American, looks Japanese.
After falling in love with Keiko, Henry becomes more defiant of his parents, hiding Keiko’s family photos from them and refusing to follow his father’s plans for him to be educated in China (unless his father takes steps to prevent the Panama Hotel from being sold). His devotion to Keiko is strong, as demonstrated by his following her to two separate internment camps and by his years of religiously writing her letters. When he eventually decides (mistakenly) that she has forgotten him, he turns to Ethel, a Chinese American girl.
Keiko is a Japanese American girl who suffers isolation at school and in society more broadly due to her heritage. She comes to love and trust Henry and gives him her family’s photographs, which might otherwise have been destroyed by American authorities. Her affection for him continues, though she receives none of the letters he sends her (thanks to his father intercepting them) and ultimately gives up on her dream of being with him.
Henry’s father is a naturalized American with Chinese origins. He hates the Japanese for what they are trying to do to his two countries, and he is therefore opposed to his son’s involvement with Keiko. He encourages his son to behave as an American, but with the improvement of Chinese fortunes in the war against Japan, he urges Henry to seek a traditional education in China, even buying him a plane ticket. He feels that he is acting for the best in intercepting Henry’s letters to Keiko, but he does not see fit to admit to this until just before his death.
Sheldon is one of Henry's friends, a young black man who plays saxophone in a jazz band. Henry and Keiko go to see this band perform on what is effectively their first date. The jazz music Sheldon plays symbolizes the freedom longed for by both Keiko and Henry. Sheldon accompanies Henry on his trip to Idaho to see Keiko, and in later life, he states that his dying wish is to see Henry and Keiko put their past to rights.
Marty and Samantha
Henry’s son, Marty, and Marty's white partner, Samantha, are testaments to how Henry’s suffering has led him to behave with more tolerance than his parents, to raise a son who feels no concern about being in an interracial relationship. Their youthful energy is crucial to the difficult task of tracking down Keiko.
Mr. and Mrs. Okabe
Keiko’s mother and father, interned along with their daughter, are impressed with young Henry’s sincerity and give their permission for him to court Keiko.
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