Monday, April 25, 2011
I enjoy historical novels when they teach me something new without boring me to tears. This debut novel is a story about first love, forbidden love, strained parental relationships, role models, alienation, bigotry, coming of age, courage and how music can be universal. But it is also about the evacuation of Seattle's entire Japanese community into internment camps during the hysteria of WW2 and the enormous conflict of cultures the Chinese had with those same Japanese.
Young Henry is approaching his teens and is being sent to an all white private school by his steadfast Chinese parents who want him to become as Americanized as possible as a first generation American. They also want him to be proud of his Chinese heritage, but to blend in with the country they now live in. They especially want everyone to know that he is not Japanese - the enemy of China and America during this period of 1942 and beyond. So they make him wear a pin at all times that reads "I AM CHINESE."
Henry is ostracized by his classmates who refer to him as a Jap. He is also abandoned by his former Chinese friends since he has been made to transfer schools. Alone and an outsider wherever he goes, he is delighted to make friends with another new student arriving at his school who stands out even more than he does - Keiko, a beautiful girl who is Japanese American.
Henry and Keiko form a strong bond of friendship and flirt with more until she and her family are sent away by the US Govt. to camps for their protection but which really are a way to round up anyone of Japanese descent and stick them in a prison camp until the war is over. Henry is smitten and heartbroken. His parents are furious that he would betray his roots and date the enemy.
Henry has to turn to some other adults in his life for guidance and support and tries to make sense of things and find his way through typical teenage troubles during incredibly atypical times.
This story was very engaging to me because the characters were so easy to care for and take interest in. The writing was easy to read, but the themes within the plot were quite thought provoking. The simplicity of the author's words did not result in a lack of poetic language.
The story is told juxtaposed with Henry's life as an adult and his own strained relationship with his college aged son. The past comes back to the forefront when a renovated hotel discovers belongings left behind by Japanese families forced away to internment camps. This clever plot device added maturity to the tale. Henry as an adult was not nearly as bright eyed and hopeful as Henry the young adult. Filling in the missing pieces to find out why was an interesting journey to take.
I was touched most by the love between the various characters - Henry and Keiko, Henry and his family, Henry and his good friend the Jazz musician Sheldon. Love is an effort - one worth fighting for. And to see people for who they are on the inside - not for what their button states that they are on the outside - is the true moral here.
The city of Seattle shines as a character throughout this book too. As does the world of Jazz. Many things to become exposed to - many things to want to learn more about. This book would make an excellent teaching tool for young adults studying about this time in America's history. I found it to be a good launching pad for seeking out more facts about that period of time too.