From Adults to Teens and Everything In Between

From Adults to Teens and Everything In Between

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Review: Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford

3 ½ Stars out of Five

It is 1942, and twelve-year-old Henry Lee straddles two very different worlds. At home, his immigrant Chinese parents refuse to let him speak his native Cantonese, yet at the same time insist he wear an “I Am Chinese” button on his lapel. At his all-white school where his parents have sent him “scholarshipping,” Henry is regularly ridiculed and even outright physically harmed for being different. Yet despite what might seem to be dire circumstances, there are some bright points in Henry’s life – his black, jazz playing, street corner performer friend Sheldon, and the new girl at school – Keiko. But Keiko is Japanese – the sworn enemy of both America and China. Add to this mix the chain-smoking lunch lady, Mrs. Beatty: is she a friend or a foe? (Hint: think Coach Beiste from Glee!)

I would most definitely recommend this novel. I think author Jamie Ford has done a fantastic job of pacing, for one. So many times, authors are encouraged to start “in the middle of the action” and then just speed headlong from scene to scene. Ford allows this tale to deliciously unwind, while the reader is given the rare opportunity to savor every nuance along the way. The book actually opens with Henry as an adult, having just nursed his ailing wife through a losing battle with cancer and also contemplating how to mend his relationship with his son, Marty, who is soon to graduate college. Ford deftly moves the story back and forth in time from 1986 to 1942 and back again, like a slow, sensual dance, taking the reader right along with him. I was constantly driven to read “just one more chapter,” the ultimate compliment to any writer.

Just as adult Henry is adjusting to his new station in life, a commotion in what was once The Panama Hotel – a gateway between Seattle’s Chinatown and Japantown – shakes his world, and causes him to reflect back, remembering the place…“where he’d once met the love of his life.” I especially appreciated the fine details that Ford gives throughout the entire tale. I could feel myself sink into the depths of the dank basement of the Panama, lit only by bare bulbs, and feel the damp air send chills along my spine as Henry surveys the long forgotten belongings of entire families. In addition, the relationship between Henry and his own parents is richly drawn. Yes, it is rife with conflict, but the reader is equally invited into the intimate world of the Lee home, where Henry’s father (a Chinese nationalist) and his mother (conflicted by the two men in her life) sincerely want to create a better existence for their only child.

In an historical context, Ford’s novel reminds us (by “us,” I mean the collective us of America) of a most troubling time in our own recent past. Sadly, I believe there will be a number of readers who may be completely unaware of the fact that the U.S. government once imprisoned over 100,000 of her very own citizens. I sincerely hope that everyone who reads this novel will use this as an opportunity to learn more about this chapter of American history and about Executive Order 9066 which was issued by Franklin Delano Roosevelt on February 19, 1942. This order set up an “exclusion zone” that consisted of the entire Pacific Coast where any persons of Japanese descent – despite their US birthright – were prohibited to live, work, travel or otherwise occupy unless interred in a special camp.

I always find it especially engaging to read the version of any book which contains a “Reader’s Guide” within. I appreciate the extra insight the author gives, as well as delving deeper into the motives/characters of the particular piece. In this instance, there was also a Q/A with author Jamie Ford. When asked about the split-narrative, Ford gives this response (from the 2009 Ballantine Trade Paperback Edition):

I wanted to give the book a more redemptive ending. That’s a literary way of saying, “And everyone lived happily ever after.”

The short story wrapped up on a fairly tragic note. And even if I continued the story in the ‘40s, there really wasn’t a way to give it an ending that felt satisfying. I mean, after the war was over, it didn’t suddenly get better for Japanese American families. Their lives had been completely turned upside down – sort of like people who survive a hurricane. Sure the wind stops blowing and the floodwaters recede, but what do you have left except rubble, and does that provide happiness or just relief? It took decades for most of these families to recover. It just seemed natural to have that redemptive ending come years later as well.

Also, I think that most people can relate to seeing their first love again, at a class reunion or just by chance, and there’s this wave of nostalgia and melancholy – it’s very poignant and universal, I think.

So, now I toss this over to you. Whether you have read Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet or not (and I suggest that you do!), I want to know: do you still remember your first love? How old were you when the two of you met? Do you still see this person? What would you do if you were to run into him/her on the street this very afternoon?

1 comment:

  1. I really want to read this. And I agree with you, lots of book do seem rushed and it's a pleasure to find a book with a more easy-going pace.


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