Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford
Book description~ Henry Lee comes upon a crowd gathered outside the Panama Hotel, once the gateway to Seattle’s Japantown. It has been boarded up for decades, but now the new owner has made an incredible discovery: the belongings of Japanese families, left when they were rounded up and sent to internment camps during World War II. As Henry looks on, the owner opens a Japanese parasol.
This simple act takes old Henry Lee back to the 1940s, at the height of the war, when young Henry’s world is a jumble of confusion and excitement, and to his father, who is obsessed with the war in China and having Henry grow up American. While “scholarshipping” at the exclusive Rainier Elementary, where the white kids ignore him, Henry meets Keiko Okabe, a young Japanese American student. Amid the chaos of blackouts, curfews, and FBI raids, Henry and Keiko forge a bond of friendship – and innocent love – that transcends the long-standing prejudices of their Old World ancestors. And after Keiko and her family are swept up in the evacuations to the internment camps, she and Henry are left only with the hope that the war will end, and that their promise to each other will be kept.
Forty years later, Henry Lee is certain that the parasol belonged to Keiko. In the hotel’s dark dusty basement he begins looking for signs of the Okabe family’s belongings and for a long-lost object whose value he cannot begin to measure. Now a widower, Henry is still trying to find his voice – words that might explain the actions of his nationalistic father; words that might bridge the gap between him and his modern, Chinese American son; words that might help him confront the choices he made many years ago. Set during one of the most conflicted and volatile times in American history, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet is an extraordinary story of commitment and enduring hope. In Henry and Keiko, Jamie Ford has created an unforgettable duo whose story teaches us of the power of forgiveness and the human heart.
Wow. In a powerful blend of historical fact AND fiction, Jamie Ford churns out a most moving read centered around a Romeo & Juliet-type story of a young Chinese boy who falls in love with a young Japanese girl on the brink of cultural shift. You know the way a warm towel feels on your shoulders fresh from the dryer? Or the way a cool drink of water feels when you’ve been thirsty for an hour? Or the way it feels to crawl into bed after a most exhausting day? This is how Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet felt to me as I finished the last word; both bitter and sweet. You know that towel will cool down; that drink will end; that alarm will sound. It’s so sweet yet fleeting. Ford did an UH-mazing job pacing this novel just so. Shifting between war-time Seattle in the 40s and more ‘modern day’ life in the late 80s, Ford was so tender and artful in his gradual build-up in character, plot, and subplot. Henry and Keiko’s story of young love unfolded in the foreground while Henry and Marty’s once frail father-son connection flourished in the background.
“They arrested more people last night. Japanese, all over the city. All over Puget Sound. All over the state, maybe. People are getting rid of anything that might connect them to the war with Japan. Letters from Nippon. Clothing. It all must go. People are burning photos of their parents, of their families.”
Despite having no prior knowledge or understanding of the Japanese Internment camps during WWII in Seattle or the cultural divide for that matter, I couldn’t help but be immersed in Henry’s world. When people think of genocide, they instantly think of the Holocaust for the Jews. But how many would think of the Japanese Internment ? I most certainly will from now on. I was drawn in with subtlety; Ford’s writing style made it easy to get lost in Henry’s world.
I usually loathe the idea of movies being adapted from novels but in this case, if done well like Memoirs of a Geisha, this novel would translate quite beautifully on-screen. At times I drew parallels to The Boy in the Striped Pajamas , during scenes of Keiko and Henry’s clandestine meetings in the camp. Henry and Keiko seemed so mature beyond their years and I loved how devoted Henry was, I just wish Ford had written this in first-person when the narration shifted to Henry’s story; as the reader I felt slightly removed from Henry and would have prefered to be inside his head.
My heart DROPPED as the clerk shared the ‘news’ with Henry that life-altering day at the corner of The Panama Hotel and felt my mouth agape and my eyes water; I had to read those lines a few times before they sunk in. I found myself slowing my reading pace because I realized I was almost to the end yet I wanted so much more story and knew I would have to suffice with what was left.
My only criticism is that the editor should have probably done a bit better job of fact checking; I don’t believe the internet was advanced enough for the “search” to have taken place in the late 80s for Marty to have found Keiko so easily.
I must thank Sarrina for letting me borrow this book from her; I am truly changed and wish everyone would read this book AND take their time with it.
6/5 stars (watch me!)
51 down, 1 left …wait did I really just type that?! Holy cannoli.
On deck, Oogy!