I really enjoyed Jaime Ford’s debut fiction novel. The book is set in two time periods: the 1940s during World War II and forty-years later in the mid-1980s. The story follows Henry Lee, a first generation Chinese boy, with very nationalistic and loyal parents to China, living in Seattle, Washington. His father especially follows the war between China and Japan closely and considers any Japanese person an enemy. Henry is caught between two worlds. His parents send him to an English school to learn “his American,” and yet Henry feels the loneliness of being a minority. He’s not American enough for the whites kids, and not Chinese enough for the Chinese kids. It’s here that Henry meets Keiko, a Japanese-American girl. They quickly become friends, a friendship that could damage his relationship with his parents. Through Keiko, Henry learns the harsh realities of war and life when Keiko and her family are sent off to the Japanese internment camps. The adult Henry of the 1980s has just lost his wife to cancer after taking care of her for a decade and is looking back at his life. He has an adult son he’s trying to navigate a new relationship with without his wife being able to bridge the gap between them.
Ford did a beautiful job intertwining the two stories of Henry’s childhood and later adulthood. In this novel, he explores what it means to be both Chinese and American. He chronicles the Japanese internment camps without judgement of what the United States government decided to do with it’s own citizens. He could have turned this novel into a morality play, but instead chose to focus on how circumstances out of our a person’s control can have great alternating affects on their life and future.
It took me two weeks to read this book, when normally I can read a book in a week or less, because I would stop and think about how I would have reacted if I was faced with the same things Henry faced as a boy. Would I have been able to reject my parents bigotry to befriend an “enemy?” Would I be willing to make the sacrifices Henry made for Keiko, even as he risked losing her forever?
Most of all, this novel made me want to go to Seattle and explore the places Ford talks about in this book. I already have Pioneer Square, Bud’s Records, and the Panama Hotel on my list of places to visit the next time I’m there.