Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet (Literary Feline)

As he left the hotel, Henry looked west to where the sun was setting, burnt sienna flooding the horizon. It reminded him that time was short, but that beautiful endings could still be found at the end of cold, dreary days. [pg 77]

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford
Ballantine Books, 2009
Fiction; 290 pgs

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet is a delightful and tragic book all in one. It is full of hope even during the direst of moments. Crossing over time lines, the novel goes back and forth between the sort of present (1986) and the past (World War II). It is the story of Henry Lee, a young Chinese-American growing up in Seattle, Washington, and an older Henry, who is searching for something even he is not sure he will find and trying to piece his life together as he makes peace with the past.

The Panama Hotel had been boarded up since the 1950’s. One day in 1986, as Henry is walking by, he notices a crowd gathering outside the hotel. He stops to see what is going on. The new owner of the hotel has uncovered a treasure trove of belongings, presumed to be hidden in the basement during the early 1940’s by the Japanese-Americans who were forced to leave behind their lives and everything they owned because of an executive evacuation order. The Japanese-Americans were believed to be a threat to national security. The concern was that any of them could be spies or saboteurs, and so they were locked away in internment camps “for their own protection.” The sight of a beautiful Japanese parasol reawakens memories in Henry to a past that is never completely out of his mind.

Stephanie Kallos’ Broken for You instantly came to mind as I read the first chapters of this novel. Both are set in Seattle and have elderly protagonists. In Broken for You, Margaret Hughes is surrounded by antiques collected by her father from the Jewish people who had been forced into concentration camps all over Europe. In Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, Henry finds himself in the basement of a hotel, looking through the belongings of those who were interned during the war. Both Margaret and Henry have led full lives and yet they both feel something is missing and are in need of some sort of resolution to their pasts. Even among so many similarities the two books are completely different. The stories are told in their own unique fashions and go into completely different directions. Still, it was hard not to think of the one, at least at first, while reading the other.

In 1942, Henry is an innocent child of 12 years of age, untouched by the scars his father carried. His father, a proud Chinese man, did not like the Japanese because of the violence they inflicted on his friends and family in China. He saw it as a good thing that the Japanese were being persecuted in the U.S. during the war as they were the enemy, a common enemy shared with China. That part of Henry’s family’s history is so removed from Henry that he does not fully understand why his father holds so much animosity towards the Japanese, including Japanese Americans.

Henry’s father dreamed of sending his son to school in China once he reached his teen years, but with the war and the growing resentment towards the Japanese, Henry’s father and mother decided to push their son into an entirely different direction. Henry was instructed only to speak English both inside and outside of his home. In a home with parents who barely spoke English, this would prove to be difficult on many levels. In addition, Henry was enrolled in an exclusive private school where he was the only non-white student. At least until Keiko Okabe arrived.

Even before Keiko came to the school, Henry was tormented by the school bullies. The “I am Chinese” button his father made him wear did nothing to prevent the never-ending razing he got for being Asian. Keiko’s appearance on the scene only made things worse, and yet it also made things more bearable for Henry. He wasn’t alone anymore. The two formed an instant friendship.

Keiko was second generation Japanese. The daughter of a lawyer, she did not speak Japanese. She was American through and through. Henry and Keiko’s relationship blossomed, and yet she was not someone he could tell his parents about. His father’s hatred of all things Japanese made that impossible.

As the two grew closer, the situation in Seattle and around the country heated up. The war closed in around them. The persecution of Japanese-Americans intensified. Henry was devastated when Keiko was taken away from him, forced into an internment camp. He was not sure he would ever see her again.

I was in middle school when I read Farewell to Manzanar by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and James D. Houston, a memoir of one woman’s experience during and after her internment at the Manzanar camp during World War II. I had heard about the internment of civilian Japanese Americans before that, but not in much detail. Farewell to Manzanar had a profound impact on me at the time. I would later read the novel Obasan by Joy Kogawa, a fictional account of one family’s experiences in an internment camp in Canada. The novel was drawn in large part on the author’s own real life experiences. Up until that point, I had not realized Canada had also been involved with interning their Japanese-Canadian population.

As you can guess, it was this part of Hotel at the Corner of Bitter and Sweet which most moved me. It was both sad and tragic. So many lives uprooted out of fear and prejudice. So many lives destroyed.

I cannot leave out mention of Sheldon. Sheldon was a black jazz musician, playing his saxophone on the street for money, while hoping to make it big. He was a constant in Henry’s life and one of my favorite characters. Jamie Ford did a good job of offering readers a glimpse at the layers of discrimination during the early 1940’s, not only for the varying Asian groups in the United States, but for blacks as well.

The novel is not just about the internment of the Japanese-Americans, however. It is so much more than that. It is also about family, particularly the relationship between father and son. Henry and his son, Marty, do not talk to each other. Henry never really could talked to his own father and he isn’t sure now how to talk to his son. His wife had been the person to facilitate much in their relationship. Now that she is gone, Henry must figure it out for himself. There is much Marty does not know about his father, especially his past. And there is much Henry does not really know about his son, including his son’s perception of him. So much stood in the way of Henry and his own father having a good relationship, and the influences of that relationship on Henry can clearly be seen in his relationship with Marty. Fortunately for both Henry and Marty, it is not too late to try to fix what is broken.

And then there is the love story: love lost and found. Keiko and Henry had so much going against them during the war years. The stress of the times and their separation did not help matters. While the story of Keiko and Henry takes center stage, the story of Ethel and Henry should not go unnoticed. They too shared a special love and devotion. I liked the fact that Jamie Ford was kind and gentle to Ethel’s memory throughout the novel. I spoke much of Henry’s character.

There is romance, friendship and broken hearts. There is tragedy and hope. Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet lives up to its title. There is definitely the bitter, but in it all, there is the sweet. I truly enjoyed Jamie Ford’s novel. Henry and Keiko are great characters, even if seemingly a little too perfect at times. They both suffered much in their young lives. I flew through Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet. It touched my heart, made me laugh and cry, and left a smile on my face as I closed the book for that last time.

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