Taking place during the later end of World War II, this work of Historical Fiction tells the story of two young lovers, Keiko and Henry. The novel focuses on the town of Seattle and its cultural, musical, political, and social conflicts at the height of the Pacific War. Exploring themes of loyalty, justice, love, coming of age, music, and family, author Jamie Ford weaves a story that is not easy to forget.
The novel alternates between two accounts; one told in 1986, the other told in 1942. Henry, the protagonist, grows up in a traditional Chinese household with a father who is adamantly loyal the Chinese war effort. The novel is told from the point of view of young Henry (1942) and older Henry (1986). Young Henry is inculcated in a traditionalist home against the affability of the Japanese. Henry's parents, in their own way, wish nothing more than the best for Henry. Henry's father sends Henry to Rainer elementary on Scholarship and instructs Henry to speak nothing but "his English."
While at Rainer, Henry encounters Keiko, a young Japanese girl from Nihonmachi. This encounter proves strange and difficult at first. However, Henry decides that Keiko is the most beautiful girl he has ever seen. The two quickly form a lasting friendship. Henry is Chinese, Keiko is Japanese.
Being Asian-Americans is accompanied by myriad challenges for Henry and Keiko. The two constantly endure discrimination from their peers, elders, and government.
All the while, a parallel story is being narrated, older Henry comes across the Panama Hotel and relives vivid memories of his youth with Keiko. Embarking on a journey with his son, Marty, and his fiance, Samantha, the three re-experience the story that Henry never told.
Young Henry falls in love with Keiko. This Romeo-Juliet complex proves largely problematic for the two. Soon, the government relocates all the Japanese-Americans to compounds, ostensibly for their own safety. Henry, motivated by love, does his best to abet Keiko. This move angers Henry's father deeply. Henry is disowned by his father as a result of both his efforts to continue to help Keiko and his lack of traditionalism.
Older Henry, when reflecting on the errors of his father, is inspired to be a better father to his own son Marty. Accepting Samantha and telling the two his story, all three grow closer together to create the family that Henry never had.
Back in 1942, Henry, with the help of a friend, ventures to see Keiko at her containment camp. The two spend several lovely days together and form a romantic relationship. However, due to the complexity of the war, they are soon separated.
The novel ends with the suggestion that older Henry is once again reunited with Keiko.