The story is about a Chinese boy and Japanese girl who meet in school in what could be defined as the worst of times. China and Japan are enemies. Pearl Harbor was attacked by the Japanese and World War II is raging.
The story travels back and forth between 1942 and 1986 as it tells the poignant tale of two ill-fated twelve year olds, who meet and become best of friends, in an all white school, where they are ostracized. It is a time when America as forgotten its values and saw enemies among its own population. Since the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was an unprecedented sneak attack which took place even as peace talks were taking place between Japan and the U. the American Japanese citizens became easy targets.
Even the most educated and responsible people suspected enemies behind every bush, in every dark corner and in every locale. Their hatred came out in the most subtle to the most violent ways from looting to physical attacks. The Japanese were ostracized, their businesses failed and they were forced to leave their homes and be relocated “for their own protection”. It was in this atmosphere that Henry and Keiko met and developed a relationship destined to be controversial as well as doomed.
So many Japanese were unjustly transported to internment camps that it will remain a blight on our history forever, in much the same way as the mania of the era of Mc Carthy has remained an ugly memory about “ugly American” behavior. These people were not our enemies but they looked different, their culture required obedience and loyalty and they had no ammunition to fight back. They were forced to build their own camps and live in semi-squalor. Most of their belongings were left behind and their homes were looted and sold unfairly, often never to be returned to or reclaimed. These Japanese were innocent victims who remained loyal to the US and even went so far as to enlist in the armed forces to fight for America since, above all, they considered themselves American in a country that considered them foreigners. Many of them were native born Americans who were uprooted because of their background and former culture and/ or because they had relatives who were Japanese, still living in Japan, and therefore they were suspect.
Henry and Keiko, seem older and more mature than their years. It was a different time. Children matured more quickly and assumed more responsibility than they do today, but still, they seemed more sensible and responsible than most of the adults surrounding them, recognizing the simple truth that they were the same, although from different backgrounds. Another important character, Sheldon, is a man of color who transcends the hatred of the time, as well, and is often Henry’s only real friend. It is interesting that in their “otherness,” they unite and see the world through far more humane eyes than most of humanity.
What the US did was wrong but it would be equally wrong to judge the US with the same lens used to judge Germany, since Germany was unprovoked when they attacked an innocent population, with the intention of committing genocide, in order to create a perfect Aryan nation with a master race. The public was only too ready to cast blame upon innocent victims and claim their own spoils of war in both instances, here and abroad, but Japan attacked America provoking the panic.
Once again, as in other books I have recently read, the children lead the way. They are uncorrupted by the learned prejudices of adults.