Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet

Author: James Ford
Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and SweetPublisher: Ballantine Books, 2009

 Happily satisfied, I have just this moment finished Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet.  The story easily lived up to its name for it is a mix of bitter and sweet well combined to produce a good literary meal.

We first meet Henry, our leading man, in the winter of his years, standing in front of the Panama Hotel in Seattle, Washington.  During renovation, the Panama reveals what it has been hiding since world War II. Workers have found, in the hotel's basement, hundreds of suitcases and boxes left by Japanese families that were relocated to internment camps. The people were only allowed two suitcases each.  That didn't leave room for photo albums, wedding dresses, family heirlooms and other items the American government deemed unnecessary.  After this discovery, we  travel back and forth with Henry between the present and an earlier time when, at age twelve, he a resident of Chinatown with a button attached to his coat that says, "I am Chinese."  Henry's father makes him wear the button so that people do not mistake him for Japanese.
    Henry's young life is not happy.  He is hated by his classmates at the all-white school he attends for being different.   Chinese children make fun of him for attending the "white" school rather than the neighborhood Chinese school.  He has become "uppity" in their eyes, not really Chinese anymore.  He doesn't fit in anywhere, not even at home where his father insists that he speak only "American" even though neither of Henry's parents understand much English.  He can only be himself with his adult friend, Sheldon.  Sheldon is a weathered musician, playing the jazz that Henry loves. On the street, Sheldon and his saxophone play the background music for Henry's life.
    Henry's life changes when he meets Keiko, a Japanese girl who comes to Henry's school. Like Henry Keiko is a scholarship student which means that she works in the kitchen with him at lunch and helps him clean up after school.
    If you know your history, then you know what happens to Keiko and her family. Even though her parents were born in America - her father is a Seattle lawyer- they are sent with all the other Japanese to the prison camps.
    Throughout the book, Henry searches for his life.  In his old age he feels lost like the jazz recording by the great musician, Oscar Holden for which Henry continually searches. It is a record that he knows exists, though many people doubt it.
    Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet is about discovering who you are. It is about what defines each person? What leads our actions? Is it our culture, our parents, our geography, our place in history or is it something more?
     James Ford has told a good story, avoiding being overly sentimental or preachy. He hasn't forced any moral judgment on us, the readers, telling us both sides of the stories involved.  It is easy to see this story as a movie.  The musical score will have to be jazz, the Seattle jazz that had its own personality in the forties. Read the book first so that when the movie is made you will be ready.


mary said...

Nelle, you did a good job doing this review. I, too, found the book a great read, and learned a lot about a period in our history.

me ann my camera said...

What a coincidence! I am just starting to read this book! My Japanese Canadian sister-in-law might like knowing of it. She, along with her Japanese family were living in Vancouver, Canada during the war years and all of the family inclding her as a five year old were put in internment camps. Before they left their home, her father hid family photo albums in the attic. After they were released from the camp , her father returned to his previous home which had been sold to snother family and asked their permission to retrive his hidden photos. My sister-in law has shown me some of their beautiful family photos. what a treacherous, heart-rending time the family endured.It was because of their experiences I had chosen to read this book. Thank you for the review of it, I look forward to the read of it. I have recently finished reading Shanghai Girls, by Lisa See, an excellent read.
What an excellent dandelion find you had at Walmart!

Brasil said...

This is a love story, most of all. Not your typical harlequin romance, but a story of deep, abiding love. There's patience, hope, despair and more all wrapped up in the love that begins between, of all people, two 12 year old children.