Author: Jamie Ford, 2009.
Genre: Period Fiction. Coming of Age. War. Racial Tensions.
Other Details: Paperback. 447 pages.
1986, The Panama Hotel. The old Seattle landmark has been boarded up for decades, but now the new owner has made a startling discovery in the basement: personal belongings stored away by Japanese families sent to interment camps during World War II. Among the fascinated crowd gathering outside the hotel stands Henry Lee, and, as the owner unfurls a distinctive parasol, he is flooded by memories of his childhood. He wonders if by some miracle, in amongst the boxes of dusty treasures, lies a link to the Okabe family, and the girl he lost his heart to so many years ago. - synopsis from UK publisher's website.
This event sends Henry's thoughts back to the early 1940s when aged 12, he began to attend the exclusive Rainier Elementary as a scholarship student. Henry's father is strongly anti-Japanese due to the ongoing war between China and Japan that preceded the attack on Pearl Harbour. He makes Henry wear a button on his shirt that reads'I am Chinese'. At Ranier Elementary Henry is the only non-white student and is bullied. Then Keiko Okabe transfers in from another school. Given that she and Henry are scholarship students they are required to assist in the cafeteria during lunch and strike up a friendship. While Keiko's parents welcome Henry into their daughter's life, he has to keep the friendship secret from his family. Over time their feelings develop into young love, despite their tender ages. Then comes the news that all Japanese-Americans, even second-generation Americans such as Keiko, are to be interred in camps for the duration of the war.
The narrative moves between the 1940s and 1986. Henry is a recent widower, struggling with his grief and also seeking to repair his relationship with his adult son, which had become strained during his wife's long illness.
This was a novel that I'd describe as undoubtedly worthy but received a rather lukewarm response from me as the central love story was a bit too sentimental for my taste. Maybe if Henry and Keiko had been a little older but 12/13 years old did seem very young to fall in love so deeply. I knew very little about the internment of Japanese-Americans during WWII and in that respect the novel proved informative. I did also feel that Ford did a good job with his setting capturing the Chinese and Japanese communities of Seattle as they were in the early 1940s. The Panama Hotel does exist and the discovery of the abandoned possessions did happen and this added another poignant element to the novel.
The novel was selected for my library reading group and it was well received by all present, including myself as I did feel it had many positive aspects. We were advised by the librarian that two members who were not able to make the meeting disliked it but they were not present to tell us the reason why. There was a great deal of discussion around the themes of the novel including the racial issues explored. One of the main supporting characters was an African-American saxophone player named Sheldon, who befriended Henry when he was a child and was still in his life in 1986. We had read Esi Edugyan's Half-Blood Blues in January, which also featured a number of jazz musicians and the racial prejudice they experienced during WWII, so it was easy to discuss the two novels for their comparable themes. We also discussed the thorny question of whether the U.S.A.'s internment of Japanese-Americans was justified following the outbreak of war with Japan?
Jamie Ford's website - excerpt from novel and other links on left.