Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet

(2009)

Jamie Ford creates a poignant recollection of history with his debut novel, "Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet".  Henry Lee is a recent widower living in Seattle's Chinatown.  The year is 1986, and yesterday's memories have assumed a place in the present with the re-opening of the majestic Panama Hotel.  Artifacts found in the basement of the old hotel transport Henry back to 1942 when he was a student at Rainier Elementary serving lunch to his classmates alongside his Japanese friend Keiko Okabe.  The twelve year olds attend the school on scholarship, and their respective ethnicities result in teasing and bullying by some of the other students.  Meanwhile, World War II threatens freedom on the homefront as Keiko's family faces relocation to a Japanese internment camp. 

While a young Henry Lee struggles to fit in at school, he also faces turmoil at home.  As the United States enters the War, Henry's Father, a proud Chinese man, wages his own war of the heart with the Japanese.  In spite of a fierce disagreement with his Father's position, Henry must keep his friendship with Keiko a secret.  And though his parents speak Catonese, Henry's Father requires his son to speak only English at home.  This further compromises any effective communication between father and son.  Loyalties are challenged as Chinese traditions and American culture collide.     

Japanese family treasures long hidden in the darkness of the Panama Hotel force a 56 year old Henry to confront devotion to the memory of his deceased wife Ethel alongside the strong memories pulling him back to the past. The richness of history contrasts with modern day regrets, and Henry cannot help but wonder if his own past can be rewritten.  Meanwhile, he seeks to strengthen the weak relationship he has with his own son Marty so mistakes of the last generation are not repeated.  The tapestry of Ford's story is further enriched by Henry's love of jazz music, Keiko's life behind barbed wire, Mrs. Beatty, and a street performer named Sheldon.    

The split narrative used by the author to connect the story between the decades spanning 1942 and 1986 is effective.  The memories are relayed from Henry's perspective, and readers will quickly realize little effort is required to be immersed into the lives of such engaging characters.  "Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet" is reminiscent of a vignette highlighting a nostalgic piece of history stemming from the bigger story that is World War II.  The elements come together successfully to spin a tale that is more sweet than bitter.   

 

 

 

 

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