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Thursday, November 07, 2013


Here’s another wonderful historical novel.  This book is Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford, and through it I time-traveled back to Seattle, Washington and the internment of the Japanese population soon after the United States entered WWII in the Pacific. 

This is a love story, but it illustrates once again how complex are the influences that shape our destinies.  This theme catapults Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet from a period piece to a universal exploration of the human condition and the human heart. 

Most of the books I’ve read about this period of our history were written in a Japanese voice, but Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet is written from the Chinese perspective of Henry Lee as an adult and as a child.  Ultimately, however, the author raises points as universally appropriate to 2013 as they were to 1942-1986. 

In 1942 Seattle, the Chinese and the Japanese neighborhoods abutted one another, but with Japan engaged in a war against China, the feeling from Henry’s father is one of enmity.  Most of the people in Chinatown had relatives in China and all had an historical tie.  Today’s readers know from history the horrors of Japan’s war on the Chinese, so right or wrong it is understandable that Henry’s father forbids him even to enter Japantown, Nihonmachi.  He hates the Japanese and sees no difference between those in Japan and those in America.  This is only one source of the father/son conflict in the novel. Nihonmachi is home to jazz clubs, unseemly in Mr. Lee's eyes, but even as a boy, Henry is a fan of Jazz. 

Henry’s father makes him wear an “I am Chinese” badge so Caucasians will not mistake him for Japanese, and he sends him to an all-white school in another neighborhood rather than to a Chinese school.  He insists that America-born Henry speak only English.  Because Henry’s father and mother speak only Cantonese, this dictum essentially cuts off all communication between Henry and his parents.  Henry is an outsider in school and an outsider is in his own silent home.  Henry is twelve years old. 

Mr. Lee is not attempting to make Henry “American.”  He still wants Henry to eventually return to Canton to finish his Chinese education.  Henry is Chinese first.

Also attending the all-white school is Keiko, a Japanese girl with whom Henry develops far more than a friendship.  She, too, is American born, but she and her parents consider her American.  She speaks no Japanese.  With her, despite the political history, Henry is not an outsider.  Indeed, even Keiko’s parents accept and like him.  She, however, remains a secret to his parents.

Henry and Keiko, scholarship students at the school, are hounded and bullied by the white students.  They are totally ostracized. As part of their scholarships, they help serve lunch to the other students, and that is where their friendship develops under the watchful eye of a rather unusual lunch lady, Mrs. Beatty.

Another important character is Sheldon, a Black jazz saxophonist who, in Henry’s youth, was a street musician looking for a big break.  Sheldon’s work in a jazz club in Nihonmachi causes Henry to break his father’s rule.  Henry introduces Keiko to Sheldon, and this wise man knows and cares for them both.  I sensed a hint of Huckleberry Finn’s Jim, the surrogate father to a boy who is adrift. 

Culture, ethnicity, friendship, and love are universal qualities that impact on all our lives no matter how we try to be different from our parents or from our background.  This story becomes universal.

It is beautiful to me that what binds together Henry, Keiko, and Sheldon is Jazz.  Jazz is a uniquely American music.  Some musicologists say it began as African-Americans blended spirituals and the field hollers of plantation slaves and then, as time passed, mixed it with the syncopated beat of ragtime and the sounds of driving marches and brass bands.  In this novel, different as one might see Henry, Keiko, and Sheldon, they come together harmoniously as Americans just as diverse elements of music came together harmoniously as Jazz. They are different but they are the same.  As Sheldon tells Henry, “Fix it.”

Jamie Ford’s narrative begins in 1986 when boxes of Japanese belongings are uncovered in the renovated Panama Hotel. These were things hidden by Japanese being taken to the internment camps during World War II.  Most never returned to Japantown.  Ford flips back and forth between 1986 and the 1940s as Henry remembers the war years. All loose ends come together neatly in the denouement.  This technique works so well because Henry grows up, his parents grow older, Sheldon ages, old characters leave, and new characters are introduced.  That’s what happens in life.  Some characters, like Mrs. Beatty, are quite remarkable, but as they are never quite understood through Henry’s eyes, there are aspects of them that we’d like to know about but which are never revealed.

Ford’s story is strong and well developed.  This is a wonderful read which will have you shaking your head, sighing, and wishing life were easier for everyone.   After all, aren’t many of our most precious things on the corner of bitter and sweet?
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