Sunday, October 4, 2009

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet - Jamie Ford

The walls of my mother's home are lined with books from floor to ceiling. I love going to visit and just looking through the shelves. My guess is that about 90% of her books are written by Asian/Asian-American authors, feature Asian/Asian-American characters, or are otherwise about the Asian/Asian-American experience. My mother also happens to live in the Pacific Northwest. So, when I came across this book, set in Seattle about the friendship between a Chinese-American boy and a Japanese-American girl in 1946, I knew I'd hit the jackpot. The hotel in the title refers to the Panama Hotel, where a number of Japanese families stored their belongings when they were systematically evacuated and sent to live for years in internment camps during WWII. Henry lives with his parents in Chinatown, unable to communicate with them because they forbid him to speak Cantonese, but they themselves hardly speak English. His father, cognizant of the atrocities committed by the Japanese in his homeland, also forbids Henry from stepping foot into Japantown, much less ever speaking to anyone of Japanese descent. Despite this, Henry meets and falls in love with Keiko. He is devastated when she is forced to move and struggles to maintain contact with her. During this time, Henry also befriends Sheldon, a street musician who teaches him about jazz and provides both Henry and Keiko an escape from the hatred and ugliness around them. The book takes place both in 1946 and in 1986 - with Henry looking back on his time with Keiko and how the war affected his relationship with his parents, his relationship with his own son, and his entire sense of identity. Ford's wrting evoked a number of strong emotions in me. My heart raced as Ford described the chaos of the evacuation, and I swelled with anger as he described the conditions of the camps. This is a beautiful love story, but also a story about the frustrations of the war, and the dangers of acting on deep-seeded prejudices. As soon as I finished this book, I picked up the phone to call my mom. With tears still in my eyes, I excitedly told her about this "amazing book she would love." Not ONLY was it about Asian-Americans during the war, but it was ALSO set in Seattle. Surely, this was the find of the year, and I had discovered it! "Oh, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet?" she replied, "I read that when it first came out (in January). Isn't is great? I was crying at the end!" Oh, the bitterness of having been topped by her Asian reading prowess once again. But, alas, the sweetness of sharing the excitment of such a wonderful novel.


Jamie Ford said...

So glad you enjoyed it. Give my best to you mum!

Marji said...

Your mom told me about this book -- now I just have to read it. I love reading your reviews. However, your mom has a greater variety than just 90% Asian author books. She used to have an incredible collection, but I understand she has been giving her books away.

One of my friends says she loves to go for tea at the Panama Hotel. I've never been.

annehawk said...

Hmmm...she probably does have a wider selection, but I don't count all those statistics books!