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Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet

by Jamie Ford
(New York: Ballantine Books, 2009. Pp. 285.)

by Nancy Kerstetter

Jamie Ford's first novel is a keeper. The well written book chronicles the story of the separate yet intertwined lives of two children who find themselves social outcasts at their school because of their origin. Both are first generation Americans. Henry's parents are Chinese. Keiko's are Japanese. Set in 1940s Seattle, it is a hard time to be Asian, especially on the west coast. Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet is an entertaining and thought-provoking read.

hotel-and-the-corner-of-bitter-and-sweet-book-coverFord traces the friendship Henry and Keiko form as cafeteria workers at a nearby predominantly Caucasian private elementary school. Their parents have enrolled them to get a better education than at their ethnic neighborhood schools. Shy and withdrawn, Henry discovers friendship through their forced time together. He enthusiastically soaks up this new attachment  which proves a healthy counterpoint to his isolated home life. Henry is an only child with parents who do not speak English yet do not allow him to speak Chinese. Until Keiko, Henry was bitterly alone. About the same time, he makes friends with a black street musician, Sheldon. Sheldon proves to be a worthy adult friend who helps Henry see his way through some tricky situations.

Ford delves into Seattle's unique history of jazz music, Chinese neighborhoods, Japantown and waterfront. There is a lot more to Seattle than meets the eye. San Francisco pops to mind as a well-known Asian enclave, but Ford chooses Seattle as the setting for his tale. The detail he uses in the novel illustrate his understanding of the conflicting forces at work in the city during the 1940s: racism, prohibition, Japanese internment, bullying, jazz musicians and the evolution of jazz. He brings all these factors into the story and makes them work well together.

Another theme is the father-son relationship between Henry's father and himself. It is a source of constant friction, misunderstanding and missed opportunities. Predictably, Henry's mother finds herself caught in the middle. She loves her son, but honors her husband's wishes which lead to some sticky situations that Ford portrays with aplomb. 

As readers expect, Keiko and her family are interned with thousands of other Japanese American families. At the time, Japanese immigrants could not become U.S. citizens, but their children born in the U.S. were legal citizens. Thus, when families were interned by the government, many were U.S. citizens while others were law-abiding, hard-working immigrants caught in an ugly atmosphere of fear, hysteria and racial injustice. 

Henry and Keiko work against great odds to keep their friendship alive during the internment. They write letters. Henry's parents prohibit him from having anything to do with her. In fact, Henry is forced to wear a button on his clothes that reads “I am Chinese” to assure that Henry is not mistaken for Japanese. He dislikes the button, but submits to his parents' wishes. Secretly Henry continues to communicate with Keiko and her family.

Part of Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet is told in flashbacks, a device which Ford employs well. We first encounter Henry as an adult in 1986 Seattle. He is a widower with his own awkward father-son relationship with his college-age son Marty.

One of the benefits of Ford's well crafted narrative is that he takes the time to complete each of the sub stories he weaves into the book, this is a facet that even popular authors sometimes overlook. Well told stories are hard to come by, take advantage of this gem while we await Ford's next offering.

You can obtain this book from your local library, interlibrary loan or from Amazon: Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet.

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