Everyday Tidbits...

Be Kind. Do Good. Love is a Verb.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet...Review

About the book:
In the opening pages of Jamie Ford’s stunning debut novel, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, Henry Lee comes upon a crowd gathered outside the Panama Hotel, once the gateway to Seattle’s 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.

This simple act takes old Henry Lee back to the 1940s, at the height of the war, when young Henry’s world is a jumble of confusion and excitement, and to his father, who is obsessed with the war in China and having Henry grow up American. While “scholarshipping” at the exclusive Rainier Elementary, where the white kids ignore him, Henry meets Keiko Okabe, a young Japanese American student. Amid the chaos of blackouts, curfews, and FBI raids, Henry and Keiko forge a bond of friendship–and innocent love–that transcends the long-standing prejudices of their Old World ancestors. And after Keiko and her family are swept up in the evacuations to the internment camps, she and Henry are left only with the hope that the war will end, and that their promise to each other will be kept.

Forty years later, Henry Lee is certain that the parasol belonged to Keiko. In the hotel’s dark dusty basement he begins looking for signs of the Okabe family’s belongings and for a long-lost object whose value he cannot begin to measure. Now a widower, Henry is still trying to find his voice–words that might explain the actions of his father; words that might bridge the gap between him and his modern, Chinese American son; words that might help him confront the choices he made many years ago.

Set during one of the most conflicted and volatile times in American history, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet is an extraordinary story of commitment and enduring hope. In Henry and Keiko, Jamie Ford has created an unforgettable duo whose story teaches us of the power of forgiveness and the human heart.

A completely enthralling story. I figured it would keep me busy for an entire 5 hour drive. I finished it in two. Written as a memoir and alternating between World War 2 and 1986, the novel tells the story of Henry Lee, a young Chinese-American boy living in 1940's Seattle.

Now an adult, Henry's wife has died and his son is somewhat distant. While out, Henry passes the Panama hotel one day in 1986 and sees that the new owner has found many old possessions left there by Japanese-Americans before they were sent to internment camps. The sight of an old Japanese parasol takes Henry back to his youth during World War 2.

Henry's father is anti-Japanese, obsessed with the war in China and while he wants his son to grow up American, he also yearns to send Henry back to China for schooling. Henry has no friends, except one: a young, black, Jazz-playing street musician named Sheldon. Henry is sent to an exclusive school and there meets Keiko Okabe, a Japanese-American girl and the only other Asian student. The two become fast, secret friends and eventually fall in love. When Keiko's family is sent to an internment camp, Henry fears losing her forever.

I found the story compelling. Easy to read, it completely captured my attention. I thought the characters were colorful and well-developed enough for the story. This time in history was tragic. I have such respect for those who were sent away to the relocation camps and reacted to the situation with dignity.

I did have my frustrations with this book, mainly that the Internet as we know it today, did not exist in 1986. On-line support groups, such as the grief one what Henry's son joins, were unheard of at that time. I also had some concerns as to the actual historical time lines, but those were easy to suspend. If the author bent some of history's dates to suit his story, it didn't really bother me. I thought it wrapped up well.

A terrific debut novel.

Thanks to my local library for having a copy I could borrow.  You can purchase your own copy here.

Read 3/09


  1. I'm very excited that I've got a review copy of this book coming to me in the mail.

    The 1986 online group does seem unrealistic. I know that most people didn't even start to get online until the mid 90s. I'm sure I can suspend disbelief for a great story though - especially since I've read so many great reviews for this book.