The Panama Canal has been boarded up for 40 years when the new owner discovers the belongings of numerous Japanese families sent to Internment Camps during World War hidden in the basement. When Henry Lee sees the parasol unfurl, he travels back in time to remember Keiko, his friend and first love from his childhood.
Keiko and Henry are the only Asian American students in the all white school. Although Henry is Chinese American and Keiko is Japanese American, they just see each other as friends. The other children taunt and bully them, but their friendship helps them overcome it.
Keiko's family supports the friendship and see Henry as a good person to be part of their daughter's life. In contrast, Henry's father watched his parents get killed by the Japanese during an earlier war and wants Henry to stop being Keiko's friend. He supports the American hatred of Japan and forces Henry to wear an "I Am Chinese" button so no will mistake his son for Japanese. Henry is horrified to learn that Keiko's family is being sent to an Internment Camp. He is able to travel to see her twice, and writes to her continually, but she never writes him back. Henry finally agrees to his father's demands that he study in China if his father will agree to save the Panama Canal, the place where the Japanese American families have hidden their belongings.
When the hotel is unboarded, Henry begins the search for Keiko's belongings and tells his son, Marty, about his first love. Through the telling of the story, Henry and Marty learn to see each other as people and the value in giving each other a second chance.
This is a book about love. The love between father and son, the love for a country that is making the wrong decision, the love for family, first love, the love of art and music, and the love of friendship.
The book travels between World War II and the current time of 1986. It also travels between characters so you get to see the situation from many points of view. The shifts in time and characters made it difficult for some people to read, but it is well worth the effort.