Set on a warm day at Terminal Island in Long Beach, California, on Sunday the 7th, the first weekend in December 1941, Jeanne, the first-person narrator, watches the Wakatsuki family's fishing boat, The Nereid, chug out to sea then inexplicably turn back and return to the pier. Unable to fathom why the boat is returning to Terminal Island, the family learns from a cannery worker that Japan has attacked Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. That night, Papa burns a Japanese flag and documents which connect him with Japan, from which he emigrated in 1906. Two weeks later, he is arrested. According to a Santa Monica newspaper, Papa was arrested for allegedly delivering oil to Japanese submarines. Jeanne does not see her father again for a year.
From the outset, the authors establish a normal atmosphere consistent with the lives of all residents of coastal California. A number of details connect the Wakatsuki family with other Americans.
- Papa, a proud, hard-working entrepreneur, runs two boats in hopes of paying off his debt to the cannery from a percentage of earned profit.
- Like most citizens who heard the news on December 7, 1941, Mama is unfamiliar with Pearl Harbor.
- The author stresses a subtle link to the American Revolution by comparing the cannery worker to Paul Revere, a near-legendary figure who rode horseback to warn rural patriots that the British were about to attack the colonists.
To lessen the harshness of FBI paranoia, Jeanne comments diplomatically that agents were "sworn in hastily during the turbulent days right after Pearl Harbor." But, like children everywhere, Jeanne is alarmed that her father, the family's anchor, has disappeared from their lives.
Nereid in Greek mythology, a sea nymph.
Terminal Island a coastal ghetto extending from Long beach and dominated by French's and Van Camp's canneries. The outer edge of Terminal Island houses the Long Beach Naval Shipyard.
alien a resident of a foreign country whose status is determined by the government bureaucracy, which can deport undesirables without recourse to courts.
saboteur Government officials fear that Japanese Americans will revive loyalties to Japan and hinder the United States' war effort through violent or destructive acts, such as blowing up dams or power plants or destroying planes or ships.