Author: Jamie Ford
Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford is an ambitious debut novel. A historical fiction novel based on the true story of Seattle’s Panama Hotel and the family heirlooms left behind there by Japanese families being taken to internment camps in the 1940’s, could easily become a dark, troubling look at one of America’s most difficult eras. Ford instead creates characters with warmth, hope and a familiarity that gives the story a human touch that readers can relate to easily.
Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet tells the story of 12-year-old Henry Lee. Henry is a Chinese-American living in Chinatown in Seattle with an extremely traditional father. As he pins on his “I am Chinese” button on his jacket (so no one mistakes him for a Japanese person) his father tells him he can no longer speak Cantonese at home, only English. This subtle metaphor for the confusion and conflict in the father-son relationship is revisited throughout the novel, both in the 1940’s with Henry and his father, and later in the 1980’s with Henry and his own son.
Henry meets and develops a special relationship with a young Japanese-American girl, a fact that would lead to punishment and horror from his anti-Japanese father. Henry’s relationship with Keiko is told with such a delicate realism that a reader would be hard-pressed to not feel the excitement, nervousness and turmoil of their burgeoning feeling for one another.
The story is told in a series of flashbacks from Henry in the 1980’s as he begins to revisit memories and friends from a time of great upheaval in his life. The only criticism one might have about the story is that the present-day plot is somewhat predictable, but Ford fleshes out his characters so well the reader can’t help but root for Henry (and others) to find the peace and happiness that they have so long been hoping to find.
Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet is historical fiction at its best. Ford’s subtle prose inspired me to learn more about a usually abhorrent subject, the U.S. internment of Japanese-Americans. Ford’s ability to distance himself from judgment about the actions of his characters allows the reader to really dig into the history of the events themselves. As a reader who can shy away from overly sentimental novels, I was moved to tears more than once. Henry is such an endearing, realistic character I can’t help but hope to someday see his story on the big screen, where I can enjoy Ford’s story in a different medium.
I’ll keep this on my kindle and tell my more historically minded friends and readers to pick up a copy ASAP!
For further information:
The Panama Hotel
Japanese Internment Camps