The book tells the modern day story of Henry Lee and his relationship with his progressive son Marty. Their awkward bond magnified by the death of their wife and mother. Henry is struggling to find his way as a widower; his loneliness pulls him out of his home, out to walk in Seattle.
One day, Henry walks past the old Panama Hotel. The Seattle hotel has been boarded up since Japanese families were sent to internment camps in WW II. As Henry stops to watch, the new owner of the Panama discovers the treasures and belongings of the Japanese families; and specifically a parasol, which jolts Henry's memory back to Seattle in the 40's.
Henry is the only son Chinese parents who have instructed him to speak only "American" at home. That neither of them understands the language only serves to isolate the young boy. He is sent to an all white "scholarship" school where he is taunted for being Japanese (even though Henry dutifully wears the "I am Chinese" button his father gave him.). His life is miserable; everyday he gives his lunch to a street musician on the way to school to avoid being accosted by the school bully. The musician and he develop a sweet friendship, which lasts throughout the book.
Eventually a new student joins the school, a Japanese-American girl named Keiko Okabe. Keiko is proud to be American born. Happy to have found each other, struggling with the ways they are treated as second-class citizens, Keiko and Henry develop a friendship.
In the 1940's Henry's father is a Nationalist who remembers the history of the Japanese and the Chinese. He is unforgiving of a relationship between Henry and Keiko. On the other hand, Keiko's family welcomes and respects Henry in their lives. Eventually Keiko and her family are sent away to an internment camp, but Henry is determined and visits them. The two are eventually separated, but not before promising friendship without end.
The story follows the misery of prejudice and hate of the war. It keeps the theme of friendship alive with three very different relationships Henry forges. I liked this book. Well written and tied up nicely at the end.