My poor heart is sentimental
Not made of wood
I got it bad and that ain’t good.
–Duke Ellington, 1941
Few things delight this reader more than becoming emotionally invested in a book that turns out to be even better than I could’ve hoped. In turn, few things frustrate me more than reading about a shameful time in US history that is rarely taught in schools. That is what happened to me while reading Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, by Jamie Ford.
The story centers on the innocent friendship of Henry Lee and Keiko Okabe. It is 1942, Seattle. The only two Asian students “scholarshipping” at an all-white prep school, they meet by working side-by-side in the cafeteria but soon become inseparable. As a child of the 1970s and 1980s, some of my best friends were Japanese and I respected them immensely, but 1942 was a very different time. Even Americans of Japanese-descent were regarded as the enemy. Henry’s father feels this hatred especially personally, having arrived alone in America years before at age 13 from China, orphaned by war with Japan.
Like young children today, Henry and Keiko see their similarities more than their differences, and Keiko’s educated parents are likewise enlightened and inclusive. Henry’s father, however, cannot and will not see anything redeeming in the Okabes. To him they are mere representations of the people who slaughtered his family.
Fast forward to 1986. Henry is 59 and a recent widower. The nearby Panama Hotel has just been sold and, like a dusty time capsule, its basement is full of items once belonging to Japanese families nearly 50 years before. Items they could not carry to internment camps. Items they meant to retrieve after the war was over. Items they never saw again.
Suddenly, memories of the past are thrust to the present.
Through the wide eyes of young people whose childhoods are systematically being robbed, we see the harsh realities of war on the American home-front. But this is different than watching fathers and brothers enlisting and not coming back. This is watching families driven from their homes and businesses in ways that seem decidedly un-American. And yet, it happened.
Despite reading some mixed reviews on Goodreads and a self-imposed hesitant start, I started devouring this book more and more. Besides falling in love with Henry’s developing courage and Keiko’s sweet innocence, I began to recognize the value of a book like this. It is important. Denying history does not erase it. If anything, it creates the danger of repetition.
There are so many potential discussions with this book (making it the top book club selection of Fall/Winter 2009-2010.) It’s a treasure. You will remember it and its characters for a long time.