Jamie Ford makes a literary splash on his first try. Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet is a remarkable novel - love story, family saga, story of growing up in America during World War II, story of America’s shame — take your pick.
The story alternates smoothly between 1942, when Henry Lee is 12 years old, to the 1980s as Henry is deals with the death of his wife from cancer. Opening in 1986 Seattle at the Panama Hotel, the story tells of the discovery of junk to some but treasures to others found in the basement. Henry discovers some treasures that once belonged to his friend and young love, Keiko.
The Panama has stood in a part of town known as Japantown since the early 1940’s. Everything that has been found was important to the people living back then. In order to try and prove their loyalty to America, they burned all their treasured items and hid the rest. American citizens forced to go to “camps” because the country feared them hid their treasured things there, these upstanding, hard-working, gentle citizens with no understanding of why they were targeted were uniformly of Japanese heritage. Their internment is a dark time in American history, inhumane and embarrassing. Fear of the Japanese after the attack on Pearl Harbor prompted the government to consider them a threat.
Henry Lee grows up during wartime; rationing, blackouts, and battle reports have all become a part of his daily life. His Chinese-American parents despise the Japanese for invading China, Henry has to wear a button that identifies him as Chinese. A scholarship student at an all-white school, Henry’s tuition is covered by his working in the cafeteria during lunch and as a janitor for the school after hours. Alone, bullied and viewed with contempt by the other students, Henry is thrilled when a Japanese American student begins attending the school. They become friends, and Henry and Keiko sneak out to local jazz clubs. Keiko’s parents wind up in the internment camps, and as she and Henry confide in one another they become very close. Their relationship angers Henry’s father, creating problems and great tension in the Lee home.
Henry’s view of the war, his country, his parents, and even the world change. He is drawn into the Japanese section of Seattle called Nihonmachi, later Japantown. Leaving Chinatown to go into Keiko’s environment enables him to see things differently. In Japantown, Henry is seen as part of the enemy group. He experiences racism firsthand once again, not from white students at his school this time but from people who look much like him.
A caring but wiser man, the adult Henry is much the same as he was as a youth. He has just lost his wife to cancer after he left work to care for her full-time. Henry understands the relationship he had with his father and wants better for him and his son, Marty - not an easy task as Henry still deals with being a Chinese-American while Marty has never known anything but being American. The chance discovery of items from the Panama Hotel inspires Henry to share Keiko’s story with his son, hoping to improve their relationship.
Henry is a good man who loved his wife, yet a part of him has always been linked inextricably to the past and to Keiko. He thinks that this link will help him reconnect with Marty. How he accomplishes this - and how the things he finds at the Panama help bring the story to an honorable and realistic conclusion - truly shows the bitter and the sweet of this man’s life, and this wonderful novel. Following this splendid character study and novel of many layers, a new legion of fans of Jamie Ford now eagerly await his next novel.