The American poet, John Greenleaf Whitter, wrote, “For of all sad words of tongue and pen, The saddest are these, 'It might have been'.”
The Panama Hotel is the vehicle that ties the two ends of this novel together. Although the characters are fictional, the hotel and its history are very real. Henry, son of a Chinese immigrant family, befrends Keiko, daughter of a Japanese family, when they are assigned to cafeteria duty in an otherwise all-white middle school in Seattle. Henry's family in particular is very much opposed to the friendship. In fact, his father spends all his free time monitoring news stories about the Sino-Japanese war and later, the Second World War.
In the late 40s, all the Japanese families were sent to internment camps. Keiko's family is uprooted from Nihonmachi, the Japantown of Seattle. Although Henry tries to keep in touch with her, the letters cease coming after a couple of years, and he reluctantly accepts that he needs to move on with his life.
In the 1980s, we re-join Henry, now a widower, as he and his son Marty experience the discovery of belongings from nearly 40 families preserved in the basement of the Panama Hotel.
The story of the complex relationships between Henry and his parents, between Henry and Keiko, between Marty and Henry, and between Henry and his late wife bring a shameful period of American history to vibrant life. I couldn't put it down.