Jamie Ford’s Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet is a love story with emotional highs and lows so well drawn that I confess I cried at least three places in the book. See if you can spot where.
Before I sat down to write this review I checked to see when the movie was coming out, convinced some savvy Hollywood production company has bought the rights to this book, which would make a stunning movie to stir the American collective conscience. According to author Jamie Ford’s website, the book has been optioned—someone is thinking!
But to the book itself—Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet is an historical fiction novel set in Seattle during the 1980s and during the in mid-1940s in WWII. In the 1980s, we meet Henry Lee, struggling to come to terms with the death of his wife Ethel, and the emotional distance between him and his son, Marty. 1980s Henry opens the story at the Panama Hotel, in the old Japanese section of Seattle, where a developer has found a room stacked high with the personal effects of Japanese (immigrants and Americans) who were evacuated to internment camps during WWII. He recognizes some of them as belonging to his childhood friend.
Flashing back to the 1940s, we meet the young Henry, the Chinese-American son of immigrants struggling to please his parents by becoming American-educated, yet keeping their Chinese traditions of respect and authority. Understandably, Henry fits in nowhere. His Chinese-American friends look down on him for going to an American school, and the American schoolmates bully him. Henry’s only friend is an older black man named Sheldon, who is a jazz sax player—first on a corner and later with a famous Seattle jazz band.
The bombing of Pearl Harbor and America’s entry into WWII has heightened racial tensions: Henry walks around with a button to declare “I’m Chinese” in case he is mistaken for a Japanese immigrant. During WWII the Japanese were also at war with China, which in the mind of Henry’s father makes his neighbors in Nihonmachi (Japantown) the enemy. This includes Henry’s best friend at school, Keiko Okabe — an American of Japanese descent (as I think she would like it put.) Keiko and her family have embraced their new country—Keiko doesn’t even speak Japanese, and her parents love jazz. Keiko becomes Henry’s best friend. When the evacuation of Japanese residents from Seattle (and elsewhere) begins, Henry watches helplessly as the Okabes board the bus to an interment camp. From this point on in the story, Henry is torn between his affection for Keiko and pleasing his father. Tensions run high, but Henry finds his own way. Ultimately, it takes Henry’s Americanized son Marty to help Henry bridge his present and his past, and find closure—and perhaps happiness.
I loved this book. Jamie Ford described the Chinese and Japanese neighborhoods in WWII Seattle so evocatively, I felt real sadness for the destruction and looting of Nihonmachi post-Evacuation. His characters were beautifully drawn. Henry is a dutiful but torn son, a loyal but tortured friend, and a genuinely nice guy trying to do his best. I loved Sheldon, the mentor figure. Keiko is a dream girl–sweet, talented, understanding and loyal and although this sounds very trite, she does not read that way.
The Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet shines a spotlight on an ugly episode in US history. Some of the scenes in this book resonated with current US tensions surrounding how to handle immigration, most often around our border with Mexico, and the way people of that ethnicity are often treated—regardless of immigrant status. Read in light of today’s issues, the book is also a cautionary tale.