Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, by Jamie Ford

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet is a novel of world war two as experienced by Henry, a Chinese-American boy, and Keiko, his Japanese-American first love.  IN 1942 Seatle, Henry and his family live in the Chinatown section of the International District.  Keiko and her family live in Nihonmachi, the Japanese section.  Henry's father, born in China, is a fierce Chinese nationalist, with a hatred of all things Japanese because of their invasion of China.  He tries to instill this hatred in Henry, but all Henry can see is how his obsession with the war in China keeps them from developing a real relationship.  Keiko is a second generation American who doesn't even speak Japanese.  Henry and Keiko meet and strike up their friendship as the only two Asian students at an elite prep school.  Because they are on scholarship, they are made to work in the kitchen, serving the white students their lunch.  Their shared "otherness" bonds them in a way that simple friendship can't describe.  Henry is devastated when the order comes from President Roosevelt to inter all Japanese-American or not-in camps well inland.  Henry promises to wait for Keiko, but his father, who mostly disowned Henry after discovering he had a Japanese friend, intercepts Henry's letters to Keiko, and her letters from the camp, and they grow apart.  In 1986, Henry, now in his 50s, finds himself drawn back to the Panama Hotel, where the discovery of items left behind by Japanese families on their way to internment camps brings his old feelings to the surface.

I'm feeling lukewarm about this book.  On the one hand, it brings a new perspective to the history of Japanese internment, with its focus on the interplay between Chinese and Japanese, and how Chinese American's had to identify themselves so as not to be mistaken for Japanese, since most Americans of the time (and probably still) couldn't or didn't care to understand the differences.  On the other hand, it felt like stories I had read before, most notably Snow Falling on Cedars, about a white boy falling in live with a Japanese girl, and the ways that the community responded to the internment of their neighbors.

That said, I was moved by the story, and horrified as always by the way that fear and false patriotism were used to justify the blatant racism of the era.  Since 9-11 I have watched in dismay the way that Muslims have been treated in some parts if the country, and I sometimes think it is only our shameful history of Japanese internment that has kept detention centers and mass deportation from becoming a reality.    I don't know whether this particular novel does much to add to that conversation that has not already been said, but it was an enjoyable read.

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