Publication Date: January 27, 2009
During World War II, Henry Lee finds himself an outsider. He's Chinese in a time when anyone Asian could be assumed to be Japanese. He's American in a place where his neighbors are all Chinese. Sent to an American school by his parents, he finds an unlikely friend there and falls in love for the first time.
In 1986, Henry is mourning the death of his wife and looking back on his youth. There are still memories of growing up during World War II and what it was like to be Chinese in that era. When an old hotel opens up, Henry gets the chance to dive deeper in his past and find closure.
Date Read: April 3, 2019
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★
I read this for my Ethnic Literature class and I've also seen this book on Phil Wang's Instagram page (he's one of the founders of WongFu Productions). I was excited when I found out that I got to read this for class, and it was quite the ride.
There aren'y many books out there that I know of with Chinese main characters who aren't following some kind of stereotype. Henry being a Chinese boy during World War II made him a really interesting character to follow. Especially because of how easily people at the time could mistake a Chinese person for a Japanese person, it made the story even more interesting. Let's be real though, even now in 2019, there are people who legitimately think all Asians look the same and can't tell a Chinese person from a Japanese person.
This story is incredibly specific because of the location it takes place in. A lot of the story revolves around the existence of the Panama Hotel in Seattle, which is a real hotel that housed the belongings of Japanese families who were sent to internment camps. The hotel still stands today, and it was reopened in 2001 to the public. Because it actually held the belongings of a lot of families, there was a lot to sift through when the hotel was re-opened by its new owner. A lot of time was spent trying to relocate the families who owned the stuff in the basement, but not everyone could be found or contacted. And that's kind of what this story starts off with.
We're told the story from two different timelines: 1942 and 1986. We follow Henry in both timelines and learn a lot about his life. Back in 1942, he's 12 and going to an American school where he is bullied because of his skin color and his accented English. Called names and beat up, he has no friends until a girl, Keiko, shows up at the same school. She's also Asian, but she's Japanese. And from here, their friendship grows steadily.
I'm not usually one for romantic plotlines when the main character is so young, but this was really well done in a way that I could actually believe a 12-year old boy falling in love. It wasn't some kind of stupid crush that appeared just because this girl was the only other Asian in the school. Their friendship was strong and solid, and it was no wonder that it grew into something more. And to make the storyline even better, their romance felt real. It wasn't some kind of sunshine-and-rainbows story where nothing bad ever happened. Henry and Keiko had a real friendship with real problems that developed as the war went on.
Stories told in two timelines can be really hard to do, especially when they depend so much on each other. It's hard to write two different points in someone's life without spoiling something in one of the timelines. Not only did I think that Jamie Ford did a great job at handling the two timelines, I think he executed it perfectly so that we were able to get the most out of each timeline as the story went on. They really built off each other and told great stories individually and together.
The reason I docked half a star is because of the translation. There's usage of Cantonese, Mandarin, and Japanese in this story. Of the three, I do speak Mandarin fluently and Cantonese conversationally, and I have some understanding of Japanese from watching anime for over a decade. Because I speak two of the languages on this list (clearly, I also speak English), I found it hard to read without looking for accuracy in translation. There were some inconsistencies between the usage of Mandarin and Cantonese, and there were some things that were translated inaccurately. My professor reached out to Jamie Ford about this after I brought it up several times in class, and he responded by saying that the Mandarin and Cantonese were translated by his family members, who argued over the right usage of a phrase. Having heard that, I can better understand the inconsistencies within the book. However, me being me, I still struggle to give this a full 5 stars when I knew that certain things were wrong.
i thought that the end of the book was really well written. Not only was it realistic, it was thoughtful. I liked how it ended and I think that even though several people in my class were frustrated by the ending, almost all of us agreed that we wouldn't re-write it or change it if given the chance. That says a lot about the book and the ending, and I think it says a lot about Jamie Ford's skills as a writer too. I'd definitely be interested in reading some of his other books in the future.
I really liked Henry. Unlike most kids his age, I didn't feel like he was immature. It was probably because of the time he was growing up in, Henry felt like a level-headed kid. He was smart, kind, and caring, all things you rarely see in boys his age. Especially during a time of war, it was really refreshing to see a boy like him be the main character of a story.
I also really liked Keiko. Her understanding of identity and the thoughtfulness she had was really amazing for someone her age. Her artistic skill is also not to be made light of. And out of everything, her courage is amazing.
4.5 stars. I really liked this book and I think I'm going to buy a copy for myself so I can re-read it in the future and pass it along to friends.