Henry Lee comes upon a crowd gathered outside the Panama Hotel, once the gateway to Seattle' Japantown. It has been boarded up for decades, but now the new owner has made an incredible discovery,the belongings of Japanese families, left when they were rounded up and sent to internment camps during World War II. As Henry looks on, the owner opens a Japanese parasol.
Alternating between the war years of the 40s and the 80s, we follow Henry's memories of living in Chinatown, being forced by his father speak only English at home despite his parents inability to understand a word of it, forced by his father to wear a button proclaiming him to be Chinese, being bullied at school, befriending a black sax busker and more importantly, the injustice and horror of the American government and some of her citizens turning against the American Japanese after Pearl Harbor.
Henry, despite his father's hatred for all things Japanese, develops a friendship with Keiko and later on, her family.
Seeing the effects of Public Proclamation 1, which instructed all persons of Japanese ancestry to pack only what they could carry, to leave their homes and to gather at certain transportation centers where they would then be taken to temporary camps ... ostensibly for their own protection by the government, through the eyes of children was very interesting. More so because one child was Chinese and knew he would not be taken away, and the other child, who was of Japanese descent, but who felt completely American.
Love blossoms amidst curfews, internment and distance. But can love survive in face of the realities of life and family expectations?
Alternating between the 40s and the 80s, Henry, now a widower with a son in college, finds a measure of hope at finding a treasured item in the basement of the Panama Hotel, when a new owner discovered hordes of dusty suitcases and boxes belonging to those Japanese families who were forced to leave their homes during the war years.
A very touching story and at times, a tear-jerker, this is a story about family, about doing what you believe is right regardless of risk to oneself, and in not losing hope in the future.
I listened to the audio version of the book. At first, the narrator's voice seemed a little dull, but the reader soon captivated me with his vocal characterizations. I could see Henry, Marty, and Henry's musician-friend, Sheldon, from their vocal characteristics. I grieved for Henry and Keiko – for the innocence lost to the war, for the racism they were confronted with as their growing independence took them outside the confines of their ethnic neighborhoods, and most of all for the separation that I knew was inevitable.
My father listened to several big chunks of the book while we were in the car, and it brought back memories for him. (He was in elementary school during World War II.) I was glad for the opportunity I had to hear some of his memories from the war years. The novel will appeal to many readers of all ages. It would be a great book to read and discuss with a parent or grandparent with memories of World War II. Highly recommended.
The present time is 1986 in Seattle when we are first introduced to Henry Lee, a recently widowed Chinese American. While he witnesses a press conference at the old Panama Hotel, the simple sight of a koi umbrella discovered in the basement by the new hotel owner, takes him back mentally and emotionally more than 40 years to the 1940’s. Told from his perspective as a man in his mid fifties and flashing back to when he was a boy of twelve, not only is this a coming of age story but it is also a story of the pangs and heartbreak of first love and the enduring essence of friendship. Easily combining a young love story with a war story, Ford weaves a magical tale.
Young Henry Lee was caught between two worlds, his American side and his Chinese side. At home from the age of 12 he was told to only "speak your American" and not the Cantonese that his parents spoke. His father, a proud Chinese Nationalist, wanted his son to become Americanized so he sent him to an all white prep school. Unfortunately, Henry found himself ostracized and taunted due to his Chinese heritage. It didn’t help that his father made him wear an “I am Chinese” button, thinking it would protect his son from the burgeoning anti Japanese feeling after the attack on Pearl Harbor. When a young Japanese girl, Keiko Okabe, began work in the school cafeteria with Henry, he found acceptance for who he was and it is this friendship that was at the heart of the story and what a wonderful;y bittersweet story it became.
Right after President Roosevelt signed the executive order for all Japanese to be rounded up and placed in internment camps, a lot of families hurriedly placed belongings in the basement of the old hotel for storage. Keiko and her family were forced to leave their home taking only what they could carry. Henry was heartbroken as he and Keiko had become very attached to each other despite the anti Japanese sentiments belonging to Henry’s father and many others in the community of Chinatown.
Ford moves the story along seamlessly between the years bringing in age old themes of father-son conflicts. Henry and his father had a hard time communicating as has Henry and his son Marty. Another element of the story is Henry’s lifelong compassionate and caring friendship with Sheldon, a member of the Seattle jazz scene. The search for a treasured memory from the jazz era is a key component to help Henry open up communications with his son Marty.
Ford does an admirable job with his heartbreaking look at racial and cultural discrimination in a time of war, while conversely incorporating characters with giving hearts and compassionate natures. Ford writes with a simple clarity and his wonderful descriptions puts readers right into the location. It’s so easy to get into the heads of all the characters, I could feel the fear and sense of helplessness from them and almost hear Henry’s heart beat as he says goodbye to Keiko at the camp. So emotionally charged, it will pull at your heartstrings from beginning to end. I’m sure this short review does not do this book justice, but suffice it to say, I loved almost every character and the book as a whole.The characters I didn't like was solely because they were simply unlikeable in nature. Jamie Ford is a very talented author of whom I am sure we have not heard the last. If you only read one debut novel this year, it should definitely be this one.
A sincere thank you to Mr. Ford and his publicists Diana Franco and Lisa Barnes from Random house for an advance copy of this absolutely delightful book.
The dialogue and characters are rich and vibrant. The story touched me on a deep level and the characters jumped off the page and felt real. This is a coming of age story that allows you as the reader to truly experience the bitter and the sweet that one can experience in life. I look forward to more books written by Jamie Ford, this is his first novel and I expect many more wonderful books ahead.
Due to the ongoing war in 1942, Henry’s parents see that sending Henry to China to finish his education will be impossible. Therefore, they decide he needs an American education and arrange for him to attend a local public school as a “scholarship” student. This means that Henry must work at the school in order to be educated. He meets and works with another student, a Japanese girl called Keiko. Soon he and Keiko are seeing each other outside of school and Henry introduces her to his great love “jazz music”. Their friendship advances at an elevated rate mostly due to dealing with the discrimination they both face. All too soon the two young people are forced apart as Keiko and her family, along with all people of Japanese descent are removed to the internment camps.
In 1986, Henry is dealing with the recent death of his wife, Ethel. He realizes that he has made many of the same mistakes his own father did in his relationship with his son. He begins to understand that he must make the effort to open up and communicate, reveal some of his inner thoughts and feelings. When a cache of Japanese belongings are discovered in a old hotel, Henry is able to link both his past and present together.
There are some problems with this book, however. I found the depth of Henry and Keiko’s relationship hard to totally believe in. They knew each other such a short time before being separated, and, also I think they were too young, at twelve, to have such adult feelings. I know this has been mentioned before, but I too, found the computer references a little glaring. I don’t think home computers and the internet were readily available in 1986.
I found this a quick read, especially considering how much is packed into its pages, but ultimately this is a story of love and friendship that endures. A tad overly sentimental but a satisfying read. I had great sympathy for Keiko and her family, I grew up on the West Coast of Canada and knew of Japanese families that had been sent to the Canadian internment camps, losing both their homes and businesses. I think this book is a worthwhile read, a good jumping off spot to learn about a piece of our history that doesn’t necessarily reflect well upon us.
It is the beginning of WWII in Seattle and young Henry Lee is dutifully wearing his “I am Chinese” button as demanded by his nationalistic father. But this paltry announcement is not enough to dissuade the belligerent young thugs from taunting him, or the hostile store clerks from ignoring him, or his classmates in his all white school from avoiding him. Into his world appears young Keiko, a second generation Japanese American. When she begins her scholarship duties alongside Henry in the school kitchen they are immediately drawn to each other, only to be torn apart when the Japanese community is relocated.
Ford has created likeable characters and captured a small slice of ignoble history.
I found it heartbreaking that it was Keiko's family, better assimilated and determined to view themselves as American, that suffered while Henry's "I am Chinese" button kept him safe in an uncertain world. As all of Seattle unraveled around them, Henry and Keiko tried so hard to remain true to the principles of acceptance, and it was so often unexpected people that helped them along their way.
Unlike most books that flashback to the WWII period, I did not find myself irritated by the present-day narrative. Henry's interactions with his son, and gradual realization that he was repeating the same mistake of silence were as compelling as his history with Keiko, and I was delighted at the resolution of the novel.
A highly recommended 5 stars for this one!
Henry, a 1st generation Chinese boy, born in the US, is sent by his parents to an all-white school where he is constantly confused with "the Japs". As a scholarship student, he is given a job in the kitchen, where he meets Keiko, a Japanese girl who is 2nd generation American.
Their bittersweet friendship, which Henry must keep from his parents, blossoms in spite of the fact that Keiko's family is rounded up and taken to a camp, first in Washington State, and later in Idaho. Throughout the story, Henry is mentored by a black jazz musician who befriends both of these youngsters, helping them visit and stay in touch through the long war years.
The story opens in the 1980's, as Henry is searching through property left by Japanese in the Panama Hotel looking for a jazz recording that had been his and Keiko's song. Told in a back and forth story between the 1940's and the 1980's we see how Henry confronts racial prejudice, how the war feelings of the era influenced everything that happened to both these young people.
Ford writes the story objectively and sympathetically from both sides. The reader is presented with a tale that is at once hopeful and full of tears. Without making judgement, Ford leaves the reader to decide whether there was a right or wrong, and who if anyone was at fault. I'm thinking this will generate a really good discussion in a few weeks.
That quote from the book says it all....what an incredible, heartfelt, interesting story...this book is set during during World War II and is about the childhood love of a Japanese girl and a Chinese boy during World War II and takes place specifically during the encampment of the Japanese people who lived in Seattle, Washington...it will keep your interest and teach you some history...I learned about The Panama Hotel in Seattle, Washington.
It also is about the conflict between Henry and his Chinese father and the beauty of friendships...it also has some music facts in it for all you jazz fans.
I don't want to give too much away, but it is a nostalgic book and one you will want to tell others about....it is similar to Snow Falling on Cedars.
You will absolutely enjoy it and love it. I loved the story and the lessons learned.
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.
This is a coming of age story of Henry Lee, a Chinese American widower who grew up during WWII in Seattle. We meet Henry in his mid-50's, in 1986, as a new widower in front of the Panama Hotel, where a huge stash of Japanese items have been discovered during a restoration project. The Japanese items date from WWII and the time of the Japanese internment camps.
In Henry's reverie about the Panama Hotel, we meet his younger self in 1942. Henry is the only child of parents who long to see him be a successful American and at the same time have strong roots back in his Chinese heritage. In service of the first aim, they send him to an all white preparatory school outside of Chinatown and require him to speak only English at home, even though neither parent speaks English. In service of the second goal, they plan on sending him back to China for secondary education at some point in the future. And he is required to wear a button on his shirt at all times that says "I am Chinese".
"Scholarshiping" at the prep school is sheer misery for Henry where he is bullied and discriminated against in the classroom and during his work in the school cafeteria. His one friend is Sheldon, an African American street musician, who plays jazz saxophone, and keeps a protective eye out for Henry in exchange for Henry's lunch.
Things begin to brighten for Henry when Keiko Okabe, a young Japanese girl also begins to "scholarship" at school and a friendship develops as they work off their tuition in the lunchroom and after school. However, things also become more complicated for Henry. His father is a staunch Chinese nationalist who despises the Japanese because of the war.
The story seamlessly moves the reader back and forth between 1986 and the WWII years. We see the 1986 Henry seek out jazz recordings as a way to fill the vacancy left by his deceased wife. At the same time we see friendship between Keiko and Henry develop during 1942 and the evacuation of Keiko and her family to the Japanese Internment Camps.
It is a poignant story of love, loss, and relationships complicated by national identies. The writing style is spare and simple. It's a good read for adults, but I could also imagine this as a great Young Adult Readers title.
It’s surprising, sometimes, what you can learn from works of fiction. Though I was aware of the reprehensible actions of our country towards Americans of Japanese descent in World War II, I never knew that one of the internment camps was right in my backyard. In May of 1942, the Puyallup fairgrounds unofficially became “Camp Harmony” – where almost 7400 American citizens were imprisoned before being shipped to other camps.
We learn this through the eyes of Henry Lee, a Chinese American, who as a child and as an adult, tries to understand the events in Seattle in 1942 and their effect on his role as a husband and father forty years later.
“Henry kept staring at the photo albums, faded reminders of his own school days, looking for someone he’d never find. I try not to live in the past, he thought, but who knows, sometimes the past lives in me.”
Henry, 12 years old in 1942, has grown up in a time of war. Blackout curtains, ration books, radio reports of battles – these are all a part of his daily life. But once he meets Keiko, a Japanese American girl (and the only other non-Caucasian at his school) – his view of the war, his parents and the world changes.
Through his friendship with Keiko, he is drawn from Chinatown to Nihonmachi – the Japanese section of Seattle. He’s always known what it is to be an outsider, looked at differently, but in Keiko’s world, he learns what is like to be seen as an enemy, even in one’s own homeland.
In order to prove their “American-ness” – the Japanese citizens of Seattle destroy all traces of their former life, their culture. The very things people treasure the most, photographs, mementos…all are either hidden or burned.
“The photographer looked haunted by the scene in front of him. Haunted by the touchable, tangible reminders of life. “I burned it all.” Henry had seen all he could take. Turning, he ran home, still tasting the smoke.”
Henry is a wonderful character. When we see the world through his 12-year old eyes, we see a world turned inside out – irrational fear of that which is different, acceptance of the destruction of freedom in the name of security, blame of those who are “not like us”… a world that despite our progress in many other ways, still exists in 21st Century America.
The child Henry is far wiser than many of the adults around him, sometimes in ways that while profound, seem a bit too perfect.
“For the first time Henry realized where he was, standing on one side of an unseen line between himself and his father, and everything else he’d known. He couldn’t recall when he’d crossed it and couldn’t see an easy way back.”
And later, “He’d be thirteen in a few months; maybe this was what it meant to stop being a boy and start being something else, Henry thought as he put his coat back on and headed for the door.”
In “Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet”, Jamie Ford creates two different worlds. One is sweet and innocent and lovely – the little world of friendship and young love that is created between Henry and Keiko. Together they can face anything, yet are ultimately torn apart by a mob mentality society driven by fear. That society, that other world, is painstakingly recreated by Ford in all of its shameful detail.
Henry Lee, a young man far better than the times in which he was raised, accomplishes the rare feat of learning from the lessons of his youth and becoming a better man, a better husband, a better father than his own.
Our world, however, has not learned its history, and as such, is doomed to repeat it.
The novel jumps from the time of the war to 1986. Which usually I don't like, but here it works well in setting the tone of the book. You get to see him as a young kid and experience his life in Chinatown and around Japantown of Seattle during this difficult and sad time in American history. You then see how different his life is as an adult and parent as he searches for items that once belonged to Keiko. I loved seeing the relationship between Henry and his son Marty change during this time of discovery and searching. It just shows how many misunderstandings and assumptions kids make about their parents. Marty comes to see his dad in a whole new way and Henry finds he is not over losing his friend so long ago thanks to his son.
So many emotions were brought out in me while reading this book. Anger at the kids who terrorized Henry and Keiko at their school and at the cruelty of adults towards Americans who were very much loyal citizens. Sadness when reading about the loss of so many personal belongings, memories and heirlooms. Hope that future generations of these families will never have to experience such prejudices and hatred in their lifetimes. Happiness in young love and finding lost loves. A beautiful story I recommend to everyone.
"He'd meant to finish it when his son, Marty, went away to college, but Ethel's condition had worsened and what money they'd saved for a rainy day was spent in a downpour of medical bills, a torrent that lasted nearly a decade." (Page 8)
The death of his wife, Ethel, from cancer six months before happens early on in the book. Readers are left with a drifting character who really doesn't find his way into his own story for about 100 or more pages. When we finally delve into his young love with Keiko, the story blossoms into an emotional torrent, especially when they are ripped apart from each other.
Discrimination is on every page given that in 1942 the United States was drawn into World War II after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. For Henry's father, the war began many years before when Japan invaded his homeland. Henry and his father have a tenuous relationship -- a relationship that is mirrored in the present between Henry and his own son, Marty.
"'He was vehemently against all things Japanese. Even before Pearl Harbor, the war in China had been going on for almost ten years. For his son to be frequenting that other part of town -- Japantown -- would have been bad form. Shameful to him . . . '" (Page 105)
Readers will appreciate the immersion into war-time America with its simmering angst against Asians -- not just the Japanese -- and the plight of those second generation Asians who try to maintain their livelihoods and tout their American loyalties in a nation that increasingly wanted to get rid of any reminder of war. Overall, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet is a meandering novel about love, growing up, dealing with discrimination, and more, but in a way readers may find that the sequencing of events and alternating chapters between present day Henry and his younger persona could have been executed better. In many cases the present day chapters take away from those during the war years, halting the narrative and adding little to the story's arc.
Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet deals with many things - race and ethnicity, family, loss, Seattle jazz and the Japanese internment during the war. However, the true essence of this novel is a love story. It is a story of hope against great odds and the surprise and joy of finding something that you thought was lost forever. This is a beautifully written novel, telling Henry's story in two parts. First there is the boy of the 1940's and then the man, forty years later, widowed with a grown son - and then an interplay between the two. I think the format works quite well, coaxing the story out in its own time, at its own pace. I think this is going to be one of the must-read books of 2009.
This book is like a little slice of history complete with the sights, sounds and smells of Seattle during World War II, jazz music, salty sea air, and the sweet taste of duck sausage. There are so many themes touched in this story that it should feel overly crowded: first love, father-son relationships, immigrants, racism, and looming over everything World War II. Yet the story flows around and through Henry seamlessly and it is easy to find yourself deep in his world.
I completely and unashamedly fell in love with this book from the very beginning. At first I raced through it eager to see what would become of Henry, later I slowed my progress wanting to prolong my time with him and anxious about his ending. When the end came it was perfect, bitter and sweet, but so satisfying too.
When I received the book, I was reading two other books and I wanted to give this book all of my focus and attention. For some reason I knew it was special before I even cracked the binding. I wanted to read the book at a comfortable, yet slower pace and to fully understand the story, really drink it in like a fine aged brandy (even though I don't drink brandy, sounded good though, didn't it?!) I am so glad I did...I guess you could say I got very drunk from the last analogy.
Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet is not your classic love story of love found, lost and found again. This story tells of a time in our nations history that is heartbreaking for many and a time that many would like to forget. It speaks volumes on racial division across all cultures. It also shows how our ancestors dealt with war, not knowing how to fix problems and doing something that they believed right and the only possible way of keeping our country safe, at the time. The story shows how there have always been those that do not accept other cultures on any level and those that do, even when taught not to. All of humanity is created equal and deserve friendship, respect and love and this is Henry's story.
Take your time and enjoy the story. It is definitely worth it!
Overall, I thought Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet was a wonderful story of two teenagers caught up in turbulence and hatred aimed at Asian-Americans in general and Japanese-Americans in particular during WWII. The novel does a good job of capturing the emotions of the evacuation of the Japanese from Seattle and of young Henry losing his best friend and young love. The characters and emotion are not as strong in the 1980s, but there is plenty to catch a reader in the 1940s story. At times Ford does rely on cultural stereotypes, particularly with the African-American characters and with Henry's father, a staunch Chinese nationalist. But this rough characterization is overshadowed by the strength and emotion of the story.
I would recommend this book to just about anyone--and lovers of historical fiction especially. This was a good debut novel, and I will be interested to see what else Ford writes.
Both students shared many similarities – from being cast as outsiders in their schools to a love of jazz. They survived the harsh racial climate of the time, eventually culminating into the evacuation of Keiko and her family to a work camp in Idaho. Could their friendship endure the climates of war and seclusion?
I was surprised that this book was not classified as a young adult book. Henry and Keiko were about 13 years old, which seemed a young age for such protestations of love and commitment. I wish the author, Jamie Ford, made his characters a bit older so that their love story would have been easier to believe.
With that said, Hotel at the Corner of Bitter and Sweet was a good read filled with excellent characterization, plot development and historical information on the treatment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. I especially loved the jazz theme, which I learned was “the scene” during 1940’s Seattle. If you love historical fiction tinged with a love story, then give Hotel at the Corner of Bitter and Sweet a try.
The book is split between time; the 'now,' Seattle of the 1980s, and the 'then,' Seattle of the 1940s. The story opens with Henry Lee wandering by the Panama Hotel, where a stockpile of suitcases and personal belongings have been found in the basement of the hotel. These articles are from another time, a time that Henry thought was well behind him. Henry is Chinese, and has lived in this part of Seattle for most of his life. When he was a boy, his father and mother wanted him to be accepted as American, sending him to private school rather than having him attend the local Chinese public school. During his time at school, he meets Keiko Okabe, and the two become friends. The problem here is that Keiko is Japanese, and Japan is at war with both the United States and with China during this time, and Henry's father has forbidden any involvement with anyone or anything Japanese. Keiko was born in the USA, at the same hospital, in fact, that Henry was born in. She speaks no Japanese. She is fully American, but this makes no difference to Henry's father, or anyone else for that matter. She is Japanese, and therefore, the enemy.
Henry and Keiko's friendship, and eventual love, transcend all these boundaries, and even though they are kept apart by Henry's families strict prejudices, they find ways of seeing each other outside of school. Eventually, the US government moves (or evacuates) anyone of Japanese descent to internment camps farther inland, for their own 'safety,' or because anyone could be a Japanese spy. Keiko's family is swept up in this 'evacuation' and moved to their camp, where Henry, through an unlikely source, finds a way to continue visiting Keiko. Eventually Keiko and her family are moved farther inland, making impossible for Henry to continue visiting, but he writes faithfully every week, even when her letters are becoming fewer are farther between.
Reading about the 'evacuations' and the camps that the Japanese families were sent to made me embarrassed and angry to be American. That we would stoop to such lows was a shock to me. I guess not living during that time, I wouldn't understand the full emotions that everyone was feeling then, but to look back from now, I almost can't understand how something like that could happen. The word 'unfair' kept going through my mind while I read these portions of the book.
I found the interactions between Henry and his father, and then in turn, Henry and his own son very interesting. To see how Henry handles his father and his prejudices, and how he tries not to act the same way with his son, and yet falls into similar patterns, and how they cope with that. There are so many layers to this story, and each one opened an entirely new set of emotions for me.
There is so much more than what I've described that goes on in the book, but I hate to give anymore away. The ending left me with goosebumps, and that's all I want to say about it. It may seem a little predictable toward the end, but it was still a perfect ending to this beautiful story, a story about faith and hope, families, and rising above the boundaries of simple race and heritage to become the person you are meant to be.
It opens in 1986 when an adult Henry Lee learns that Japanese belongings have been discovered in the basement of a condemned neighborhood hotel. The narrative then alternates between 1986 and flashbacks to Henry’s childhood in 1942, showing whose belongings they are and how they came to be there. Ford's exploration of Chinese- and Japanese-American culture, inter-generational conflicts, and inter-racial/ethnic tensions is enlightening, and his reserved emotionality is evocative of Ha Jin. Whereas I would have liked the novel's historical context -- WWII and Japanese-American internment camps -- to dominate, it remains mostly a backdrop to a sweet story of friendships and loves.
In 1942 Henry was a boy of twelve, living in an apartment with his parents, who were completely devoted to the United States and were strongly opposed to anything Japanese. This was true specially of his father Henry’s parents had very strict rules about how they wanted their son raised to become more westernized in order to have the opportunities available to him here in America. Henry attended a prestigious all white private school where he was taunted and teased endlessly, although he never mentioned any of it to his parents, who spoke almost no English.
Attending the Ranier School was almost unbearable for Henry until the day he me Keiko Okabe, a Japanese-American girl who began working in the school cafeteria with him. Their friendship quickly grew and they became each other's best friend, making their hours at the school tolerable. Henry was careful not to let his parents find out about his new friend, as they would strongly oppose him having anything to do with her because she was of Japanese decent. Given that his parents didn’t speak English and he was forbidden to speak Cantonese at home, the secret was easy to keep. It became the first of many secrets he would keep from his parents.
With the war raging on and the fear of spies among the Japanese people rising, it became more and more dangerous for Henry and Keiko to spend time together. Ultimately, the day came when thousand of Japanese-Americans were removed from their homes and put in Internment camps 'for their own safety', as the US government put it. Henry was devastated when Keiko's family was taken away.
Some forty years later, in 1986, Henry tells this story to his college-aged son, Marty soon after news reports arose that items belonging to some of the Japanese families had been discovered in the basement of the Panama Hotel, near Japantown. The old hotel had been boarded up for over 40 years, since the Internment began. The new owners of the hotel hoped to reunite some of the families with their treasured belongings. The hotel held special memories for Henry that until now, he had shared with no one. Henry was reluctant to tell his story to his son for fear of disrespecting the memory of Marty's mother, Ethel, who had recently died after a long fight with cancer. Although Henry was devoted to his wife, he often thought about those times early in his life. Now that Ethel was gone, he knew there were things in that basement that he must try to find
HOTEL ON THE CORNER OF BITTER AND SWEET is author Jamie Ford's first novel, inspired by his own family's history. It's a beautifully written story of sacrifice, family, forbidden love and loyalty. It was a bit of a history lesson for me as well, because before reading this book, I knew little of the Japanese-American internment camps here in the US. Mr. Ford weaves a very compelling story within details of actual events that were happening on the west coast at that time. He does it by smoothly alternating between 1986 and 1942 capturing the reality of the times.
I was lucky enough to receive an advanced copy of this book and as soon as I started reading, I was hooked. It's an engaging story with characters who were so real to me. I began to care about them almost immediately. Without being too wordy, Jamie Ford paints a vivid picture of what it must have been like, both in Chinatown and the internment camps. He not only tells the story of a young Chinese-American boy growing up in a difficult time, but he also tells the story of a city's changing culture during those war years.
I can't say enough about this book and how much I enjoyed reading it. More and more, I'm enjoying books of historical fiction and this is a great example of why. This would make an excellent pick for any book club. it's very early in the year, but I'm confident this book will stand out as one of my top reads for 2009.
Henry Lee is an old man in 1986 when he comes across a gathered crowd in the International District of Seattle. The old Panama Hotel, boarded up since World War II, is finally being renovated, and a surprising discovery has been made: the belongings that Japanese families left behind as they were being sent to internment camps. The sight brings back intense memories for Henry of his youth in Seattle, when his father forced him to wear an "I am Chinese" button. But that didn't spare Henry from racism during the war, as anyone who looks Asian is potentially Japanese and a traitor. The children at his otherwise all-white school are especially cruel, but his life brightens when he meets a Japanese girl, Keiko.
As much as I anticipated this story, there were two anachronistic jolts right at the beginning that turned me off. Even though the story takes place in 1986, it mentioned online support groups and the death of Brandon Lee (which didn't happen until 1993). Thankfully, those were the only such errors that stood out to me. This is an emotional story. The beginning was especially hard for me. Reading about such blatant, stupid racism made me angry for Henry's sake. Then Keiko enters the story. Their friendship is a thing of beauty. There's also another exquisite friendship Henry has with Sheldon, a black saxophone player who knows what it's like to be treated like scum. They became people for me, not just characters. Henry's father, so ardent in his old world ways, could have easily ended up as a caricature. He didn't. At heart, it's a book about friendship, and loyalty, and how people perceive each other in so many ugly and beautiful ways.
There were two points near the end where tears came to my eyes.
I really didn't want this book to end, even though it ended at the perfect spot. This is probably one of the best books I have read this year.
Henry attends an all white elementary school where he meets Keiko Okabe, a Japanese girl. Henry tries to reconcile the feelings he has for Keiko since he has been raised to view the Japanese as the enemy. At the height of World War 2, Keko's family is sent away to internment camps and Henry has to chose between what is right and what is best. Forty years later Japanese belongings that had been left behind durning the evacuation to the internment camps are discovered in the basement of the Panama Hotel. Henry is once again faced with a choice.
This is a story about the choices we make. As people and as a society and the effects of those choices on the generations that follow.