Seattle’s Panama Hotel is in the midst of being restored when its new owner discovers a basement filled with belongings of Japanese American families who were incarcerated during World War II. When the discovery is announced before a crowd outside the hotel, it stirs the memories of Henry Lee of his boyhood; when Japantown was a few blocks away from home and he had a deep love for a Japanese American classmate, despite the barbed wire that would later stand in their way. Together with the help of his son and future daughter-in-law, Henry goes forward with uncovering the past, with hopes of mending ties and figuring out the lack of bridges between generations.
“Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet” is author Jamie Ford’s debut novel; released four years prior to “Songs of Willow Frost” (which I previously reviewed). I must say that I liked this novel a lot more. The story was more engaging, the character development progressed much more naturally, the switch-offs between Henry’s story in the 1940’s and in the 1980’s was more well timed, and it was historically accurate to the circumstances surrounding the outlook on the Japanese Americans at the time.
There have been many works of fiction written about the Japanese American incarceration, and while a number of them have, more often than not, been told through the perspective of an internee, this one gives an interesting take, as it focuses in on the perspective from a Chinese American boy. While Chinese Americans were exempt from being incarcerated, that doesn’t mean that Henry has been completely spared of being bullied and discriminated against, so much as to where his father makes him wear a “I am Chinese” button.
The relationship between Henry and his classmate, Keiko, feels very believable. While it maintains the tender innocent nature of first love, the story does well with developing the maturity when circumstances (the incarceration) force them apart. It’s almost like “Romeo and Juliet” in a sense, where Henry is even going behind his parents’ backs and sneaks into the camp, just to see her and be with her, even if it’s only for a little while.
There were some parts that I felt were a little underdeveloped; the relationship between Henry and his son Marty being one of them. I didn’t note as much tension between them in the beginning than I had expected otherwise. I also felt that the character of Samantha, Marty’s fiancee, could have had a more fleshed out role; one that goes beyond being able to cook spot on Chinese food and helping her future father-in-law out with sorting through the items at the Panema Hotel. Not to mention that there was some technology mentioned in the chapters set in the 1980’s that, unless the time traveling DeLorean from “Back to the Future” was real, did not exist during that time period.
Otherwise, “Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet” made for a strong start to Ford’s career as an author that is definitely worth checking out. Now that I’ve read all of his novels, I look forward to seeing what he comes up with next.