I just finished listening to the audio book of Hotel on The Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford. What a great book! It is set in Seattle, and told in the voice of Henry, a Chinese American man. The book moves back and forth between 1942 and 1986.
In 1942 Henry was 12 years old, and his father, a very conservative and traditional immigrant from China, had just sent Henry to an all white prep school. Life is not sweet for Henry when we first meet him in the book. He is taunted by the other Chinese kids for being too white, and bullied by the white kids for being Chinese. And then another Asian student is enrolled in the prep school. Keiko is Japanese American. She and Henry are both ‘scholarshiping’ at the prep school, and so they meet in the cafeteria where they work serving lunches and doing clean up. They bond as they clean erasers and put classrooms back in order after school. And then in another part of the world there is the attack on Pearl Harbor, and President Roosevelt issues Executive Order 9066 authorizing the relocation of persons of Japanese ancestry. We witness the effects of the relocation through Henry’s eyes as he loses his best friend who he comes to realize is so much more than his best friend.
In 1986 Henry is in his 50’s and his wife, Ethel, has just died. Henry is grieving, and trying to find balance and the path for his life as a widower. He is trying to deepen his relationship with his son who is about to graduate from college. And, he keeps remembering and thinking about Keiko. Early in the book, the Panama Hotel, a hotel in the Japanese area of Seattle, has been purchased after being boarded up since the war years. In the process of renovation, boxes that had been stored in the basement of the Hotel by Japanese American who were being relocated are discovered, evoking even stronger memories for Henry. The opening of the hotel opens Henry’s heart, opens his relationship with his son, and …. well, I’m not going to give the rest away.
This is a GREAT read. Not a perfect read, but who cares. Nothing is perfect. It is a book that will keep you engaged. It will teach you a bit about the internment of the Japanese Americans during World War II. And it will warm the cockles of your heart. That’s quite a lot for a book!
When did you first learn about the Japanese internment? What did you know about it?
How close do you think we have come at other moments to similar actions against other groups within the United State?
Jamie Ford. 2009. Hotel on The Corner of Bitter and Sweet. Ballantine Books: New York.