Book Review: “Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet” by Jamie Ford

Henry Lee is going about his business the best he can, as he has in the six months since his wife Ethel died, when he comes across a crowd outside the old Panama Hotel.  The discovery of several families belongings hidden in the basement has brought Henry right back to his childhood.  Right back to when his best friend, and only other non-white person in his school, was “evacuated” to a Japanese Internment Camp during World War II.  Now all Henry can think about is Keiko Okabe: what happened to her, where is she now, how does he begin to explain her to his son, and is he disrespecting his wife’s memory by even thinking about Keiko?

This is a beautifully told story in two timelines:  the ‘present’ which is actually 1986 and the past, which is the war years in the 40s.  It paints quite a lively picture of Seattle in this time, with special attention to divisions between culture and race.  It is absolutely horrendous what our government did to Japanese immigrants and American-born people of Japanese decent during WWII.  And it is certainly a part of our history that I just do not know nearly enough about.  This was told from Henry’s perspective, who as a Chinese person was considered an ‘ally’ and not a threat that needed to be ‘evacuated’ to a concentration camp.  But he still experienced racism and plenty of people who just were not sure how to treat him, because golly gee he sure does look Japanese.

Henry’s other friend (he is such a lonely child) is Sheldon, an up and coming African American jazz musician.  I loved this friendship for Henry, and the fact that it lasted his whole life, as Sheldon was there for Henry in ways that his own father wasn’t.  Henry’s father was bigoted against the Japanese as well, and while he wanted better for Henry than he had – he went about it terribly.

I am so glad I finally read this novel.  It was everything I had hoped it would be!


Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet

by Jamie Ford

Ballantine, 2009

290 pages

Source:  Gift


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