This story, set in a tiny town in coastal Georgia, opens a couple of years before the outbreak of WWII. Most of the characters are the usual small town Southerners: beautiful Sophie wasting her life mourning a lost love; Miss Anne, the ultimate Southern heroine, abiding by the rigid rules of Southern culture until circumstances warrant a departure, at which point she reveals her inner Steel Magnolia; Miss Ruth, the bigoted town troublemaker. And then there is Mr. Oto. He is an American of Japanese descent who takes up residence in a gardener's cottage behind Miss Anne's home and devotes himself to beautifying her garden (although if left to do it his own way instead of hers, it would be a lot more beautiful). He falls in love with Sophie the first time he meets her and pines for her secretly. She is strangely drawn to him as well, despite all the cultural taboos.
When the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor and anti-Japanese rage engulfs the country, Miss Anne decides to hide Mr. Oto in a cabin in the woods and tell the town that he has moved to Canada. Shortly thereafter, Miss Anne breaks her ankle, and shares her secret with Sophie who takes over the duties of providing Mr. Oto with food and water. Sophie and Mr. Oto are both blown away by the beauty of their love. Miss Ruth finds out about the situation and is determined to raise as much Cain as possible.
With the help of Queen Sally, a black friend from her childhood, Sophie decides to go away with Mr. Oto. The problem is, a late-season hurricane is bearing down on the town and Mr. Oto's hiding place is near the coast. After the storm, all the houses in area where Mr. Oto was hiding are washed away and both Mr. Oto and Sophie are gone. Queen Sally may or may not know what happened to them, but she isn't telling.
(My favorite part was when Miss Anne and Queen Sally integrate Miss Ruth's church a couple of decades before the Civil Rights Movement.)
Like a lot of Southern fiction, this book is written with a lyrical voice that is almost musical. The addition of the artistic, quiet and dignified oriental character who meditates in a hut behind his cottage, only adds to the mystical aura of the story. You can smell the Spanish moss and feel the humidity on your skin just reading the book.
I downloaded a kindle version of this book on a freebie promo special. I do not see it offered in e-book format any more, but you can buy the book here.