Hotel On The Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford
Published October 2009 by Random House Publishing Group
Source: Lisa and TLC Book Tours and the Random House
It's 1986 and Henry Lee happens to be walking past the Panama Hotel, once the gateway to Seattle's Japantown but long since boarded up, when he notices that a crowd has gathered at the steps leading into the hotel. The new owner, getting ready to refurbish the building, has discovered a basement full of the belongings of Seattle's Japanese families that were sent to internment camps. As the owner shows the crowd a Japanese parasol, Henry's mind begins wandering back in time to the 1940's and his youth.
Henry, the son of Chinese immigrants, is being forced to attend an American school, rather than then Chinese school where he felt much more at home. But, because of World War II and China's war with Japan, Henry's father feels that Henry needs to become more American. He forces Henry to speak only in English, despite the fact that neither of Henry's parents understand much English and speak even less. And despite that fact that Henry's father is a fierce Chinese patriot. Henry is miserable at the school as the only student of Asian descent; he is regularly harassed by the school bullies, must work in the lunchroom for a woman who makes him very uncomfortable, and his father makes him wear a button that says "I am Chinese." Henry's only real friend is a young black man, Sheldon, who plays saxophone on a street corner.
Then Keiko Okabe begins working in the lunchroom. Keiko is of Japanese descent and, therefore, off limits as far as Henry's father is concerned. Their growing friendship must be kept hidden. One night they sneak off to a jazz club, where Sheldon is playing. They are having an amazing night until the reality of the times they are living in strike home. The club is raided and the Japanese patrons are arrested. Soon all of the Japanese are rounded up and sent to internment camps. Henry promises Keiko he will wait for her.
Forty years later, Henry is a widower and is more than a little upset to realize that his relationship with his only son, Marty, is no better than the one he had with his own father. When Marty introduces Henry to the girl he is engaged to marry, Henry realizes he has the opportunity to make things better. He enlists the two to help him find an record in the basement of the Panama Hotel, a record that has music on it that Henry and Keiko heard that night they were in the jazz club. Henry has never forgotten his first love.
Generally, I try to give you both the strengths and weaknesses of a book. But I'm hard pressed to find much to give you in the way of weaknesses. I do have mixed feelings about the ending--a part of me was very satisfied with it and a part of me felt it should have been handled differently. Ford does make use of some cliches and fiction standards (such as the school yard bullies). The love story was charming but I did, sometimes, have a problem believing that a love that begins between two eleven-year-olds would stand the test of time. But I was so taken by Henry and Keiko that I was more than willing to buy into their relationship. Publishers Weekly calls the narrative flat and the book strained and disappointing. Ford's writing does not have the lyricism and poetry of some writers but I did not find the book disappointing. I was concerned that I might. I was prepared to; I was expecting so much from this book.
The reality of what happened to the Japanese in this country during the second World War provides more than enough emotional punch. As in this scene where the Henry finds the Japanese burning anything that might make them appear to be Japanese spies to the American authorities:
""Why are they doing this?" Henry asked, not fully understanding what he was seeing with his own eyes.
"They arrested more people last night. Japanese, all over the city. All over Puget Sound. All over the state, maybe," the photographer told him. "People are getting rid of anything that might connect them to the war with Japan. Letters from Nippon. Clothing. It all must go. Too dangerous to keep. Even old photos. People are burning photos of their parents, of their families.""
I was aware of the internment of the Japanese during World War II but I have never really read anything that specified how it was done nor how the Japanese were treated. I found this part of the book fascinating; it was well worth reading the book for this alone.
Thanks to Lisa and TLC Book Tours for including me in the tour of this wonderful book! I think this would make a terrific choice for a book club read. I myself have sticky notes all over the book of things that a group could discuss.