This novel by Jamie Ford begins rather slowly and quietly. In fact, if it were not a selection of my book club I probably would not have plowed through it. And that would have been an error. Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet is moving and real. It deals with a shameful episode in American history on a very personal level.
As the United States is drawn into World War II following the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, a Chinese-American boy and a Japanese-American girl meet as the only non-white students at a private school in Seattle. They are both required to work in the school cafeteria and do janitorial work after school to help fund their scholarships. They form a quick and easy friendship. Henry Lee’s father is virulently anti-Japanese, and demands that Henry wear a button to school every day that states “I am Chinese”. Keiko Okabe’s family are well-educated Americans; her father is an attorney. Their lives are upended when the U.S. government evacuates all Americans of Japanese descent to internment camps.
The book toggles back and forth from 1942 to 1986, a time where Henry is mourning the recent death of his beloved wife, Ethel, and struggling to connect with his son. Just before the evacuation, many of the Japanese-American families had stored their personal belongings in the basement of Seattle’s Hotel Panama. When Henry sees the hotel being renovated in 1986, he also sees that most of the evacuees’ belongings are still in the basement of the hotel. He decides to look for the Okabe family belongings, in the hopes of finding a particular item that he had left with Keiko for safekeeping.
This lovely book traces Henry’s journey from a boy to a man, from a grieving widower to someone who is ready to move on with his life, and his journey to connect in a meaningful way with his son. I highly recommend this book.
Published in hardcover- Ballantine Books-2009
Softcover edition-Ballantine Books-2009