Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet {Book Review}

During my research about the Japanese-American internment during World War 2, I came across Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet. After wading through some non-fiction volumes on the subject, it was time to read a fictionalized account of what happened. Fiction brings some facts to light that get buried in non-fiction.

Hotel centers on the life of Henry Lee, a young Chinese-American who is “scholarshipping” at an all-white school. Henry belongs to no one – his neighbors in Chinatown consider him a traitor to his heritage and the Caucasian students at school cruelly mistreat him. During the lunch hour, he slops lunch onto the trays of the schoolmates, forced to do the grunt work that is usually reserved as punishment. His father, an important figure in the Chinese community, tries to instill into Henry a love for his native China and a hatred for the Japanese. Mr. Lee’s plan seems to work until Henry is joined in the lunchroom by Keiko Okabe, a Japanese-American girl who shares his love of jazz. The two outcasts quickly bond, becoming best friends and each other’s first love.

The story is delicate, pairing scenes of Henry as a twelve year old and Henry as a fifty-seven year old widower. When the new owner of the Panama Hotel discovers photographs and belongs of Japanese-Americans in the basement, memories of young love come rushing back.

Jamie Ford’s debut novel is a sweet promise of what is to come in his career. While the internment isn’t front and center in the book, it is an important character. The rest of the characters are flesh instead of mere type sitting starkly on the page. You keep turning pages because you want to know what will happen. It isn’t a thriller but it is moving. Ford gave me ideas on how to handle the characters, how to keep them vivid without bursting into technicolor. More importantly, he gave me inspiration to check out the Panama Hotel in Seattle. And from there…who knows where I’ll end up.

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