Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford


Historical Fiction

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and SweetJamie Ford; Ballantine Books 2009WorldCatIn 1986 Seattle, the old Panama Hotel has been bought for renovation. It hasn’t been used much since the hotel closed decades earlier. The new owners find a basement full of Japanese refugees’ belongings from World War II. This is where many Japanese families stored their personal things when they were interred in the prison camps in the United States.

Henry Lee lives is Chinatown alone now that his wife has died of cancer. His son is grown and finishing college. The announcement of the discovery in the Panama Hotel throws Henry back in time to the early 1940’s. He wants to go through those belongings to look for a specific old jazz record. In doing so, he remembers what happened and how he felt during those years.

Young Henry is a first generation American. His father came to the United States when he was a young teen to make a living. The elder Lee is still firmly planted in China and is a major force in Seattle’s Chinatown. Henry is torn – his father won’t let go of China, but insists Henry must be an American as well. In the white school Henry attends he is one of two Asians. The other is a Japanese girl, Keiko Okabe. They are both shunned, although Henry wears a badge to announce that he is Chinese. Since the attack on Pearl Harbor, no one outside of their community trusts the Japanese citizens. More than once Keiko puzzles over this since she was born and raised in the U.S. and doesn’t speak Japanese. She would be a foreigner in Japan.

Despite knowing his parents’ wishes, Henry becomes friends with Keiko. He other friend is Sheldon, a youngish black man who plays jazz on his saxophone of the sidewalks of Seattle, hoping for donations for his music. Keiko and Henry bond over jazz. But World War II looms over them. Everyone knows what is happening in the world. The Japanese in Seattle are too near the coast – they could be spies.

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet is a poignant, unsettling, satisfying story that recounts one of the United States’ darker moments. While Italian and German U.S. citizens were also interred, it is the Japanese internments that have gained the most attention. Jamie Ford has used Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet to show how difficult it was during the war years on the non-white cultures in Seattle. A Chinese boy, a Japanese girl, and a young black man are an odd trio. Yet Ford brings them together in a well told story.

Ford jumps between the two time periods in Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet. Part of the story is told in 1986 as Henry tries to find the record, deal with his wife’s recent death, and reconnect with his son. The other part of the tale takes place in the 1940’s, giving a vivid picture of the racism of the times and the craziness of the people at home during the War.

Although a quiet book, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet conveys a potent message. It is easy to lump people together when disaster strikes. We know that, and still see the results when something major happens. It’s easy to get a crowd mentality and overlook what is right. Ford forces the reader to remember that each person in that lump is individual and important.

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