Title: Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet
Author: Jamie Ford
Hardbound: 290 pages
Date Published: January 27, 2009
Publisher: Ballantine Books (div of Random House)
At the next mess hall, lunch had finished. Mrs. Beatty had him wash and wipe down trays while she coordinated with the kitchen manager on needed supplies and menu planning. “Just hang out if you get done early,” she said. “Don’t go wandering off unless you want to stay here for the rest of the war,” Henry suspected that she wasn’t joking and nodded politely, finishing his work.
By all accounts, the mess hall was off-limits to the Japanese when it wasn’t mealtime. Most were restricted to their chicken shacks, although he did see people occasionally slogging through the mud to and from the latrine.
When he was done, Henry sat on the back step and watched smoke billowing from the stovepipes fitted into the roofs of the makeshift homes – the collective smoky mist filled the wet, gray sky above the camp. The smell of burning wood lingered in the air.
She’s here. Somewhere. Among how many people? A thousand? Five thousand? Henry didn’t know. He wanted to shout her name, or run door to door, but the guards in the towers didn’t look like they took their jobs lightly. They stood watch for the protection of the internees – so he’d been told. But if that were so, why were their guns pointed inside the camp?
It didn’t matter. Henry felt better knowing he’d made it this far. There were still a chance he’d find her. Among the sad, shocked faces, maybe he’d find her smile again. But it was getting dark. Maybe it was too late.
-Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford, page 157
Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford is a heart-touching tale of Henry Lee; the son of a prominent, traditional Chinese community leader who’s left his heart in the homeland; called “white devil” by his peers as he goes off to an all-white school on “scholarship” (translation – he does all the janitor work for the privilege of attending the school) where he’s bullied, heckled and harrassed on a constant basis as the only Asian student, that is, until Keiko, a Japanese-American girl, begins to “scholarship” with him; he is also father of Marty, with whom he struggles to communicate or even have much of a relationship after the death of Henry’s wife, Ethel, Marty’s mother. As the story moves back and forth in time between 1986 to 1942, the reader is able to watch the unfolding of the young, innocent love Henry discovers he has for Keiko, a love that is forbidden, and could even get him disowned, by his traditionalist father, who sees Keiko as just a relative of those people invading and destroying his home.
Their love is undeterred by the war, even when all people of Japanese decent are rounded up and sent away to live in relocation centers (concentration camps) for the remainder of the war. Henry promises he’ll wait for her, even until she’s an old woman… he promises to bring her a cane if it takes that long. However, being children, things are not always so easy or so lasting as young Henry finds out.
The discover of personal belongings left behind by residents of Nihonmachi (Japantown) in the basement of the Panama Hotel offers Henry the opportunity to open up and share with his son, and to heal the rift that had started between Henry and his own father, who made him the man and father he became, despite his desire to be different.
Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet is a quiet book, but deeply moving. It explores racial issues of the 1940s, both those between Caucasians and Asians and blacks, but also between Chinese-Americans and Japanese-Americans, and between Issei (first generation Japanese immigrants) and Nissei (second generation Japanese-Americans). The book addresses how traditional culture has had to give way to contemporary culture. It also touches on the culture of jazz, and offers music as a unifying agent… something that all cultures can share and appreciate.
One of the things that I enjoyed about Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet is that it inspires the reader to exploring history further, beyond the covers of the book. It offers a vignette of American history and life, but it doesn’t preach or teach. Ford could have very easily turned Hotel into a soap box and spoken out against the unconstitutional suspension of the civil rights of American citizens by removing them from their homes, robbing them of their property and detaining them without just cause simply because of their genetic heritage. This would have been a valid argument to have made, but Ford leaves the moral interpretation to the reader. He could have turned it into a history lesson, but, instead, provides enough information for the reader to do his or her own homework. Which I did.
And, I apparently found the same documentaries as Ford. I recommend the following for better understanding of this book:
- Time of Fear- a PBS documentary about the experiences of both the Japanese-Americans sent to relocation camps in Arkansas and their Caucasian and Black Arkansan neighbors.
- Unfinished Business – The Japanese-American Internment Cases – while the civil rights movement didn’t really get going until the 60s, not every Japanese-American went along with the government’s unlawful treatment of it’s own citizens. This documentary shows some of those attempts of civil disobedience.
- Nanking- Performed by stars such as Woody Harrelson, Mariel Hemmingway, Jürgen Prochnow, Stephen Dorff, and Rosalind Chao, among others, this documentary dramatically tells the story of the Japanese Army’s invasion and occupation of Nanking, China.
All three of the videos will help you get a better understanding of the background of the book, but especially Nanking. It will make all the difference in understanding where Henry’s dad is coming from and help you not to see him as a mean, bigoted, old man.
Well researched, but never feeling “studied,” Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford will allow you to step into the life and culture of another, and to see the world from a different angle, while still provide you with the entrancing escape for which most of us disappear between the covers of a book. I give Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet 4 egg rolls and a fortune cookie(which, I guess, is 4 1/2 stars out of 5… lol)
The following video is Jamie Ford talking about Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet and what sparked his desire to tell the story.
Don’t forget, I’m giving away my copy of Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet! Leaving a comment here on the review post is your official entry, but check out The Giveaway Announcement for details on how to get bonus entries and when the contest ends!
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