This is the story of Henry Lee, a 56 year old Chinese-American, who has lived his entire life in the Chinatown neighborhood of Seattle, Washington. The year is 1986, but Henry tells his story with flashbacks to 1942, during World War II.
In 1942 Henry was a boy of twelve, living in an apartment with his parents, who were completely devoted to the United States and were strongly opposed to anything Japanese. This was true especially of his father Henry’s parents had very strict rules about how they wanted their son raised to become more westernized in order to have the opportunities available to him here in America. Henry attended a prestigious all white private school where he was taunted and teased endlessly, although he never mentioned any of it to his parents, who spoke almost no English.
Attending the Ranier School was almost unbearable for Henry until the day he me Keiko Okabe, a Japanese-American girl who began working in the school cafeteria with him. Their friendship quickly grew and they became each other's best friend, making their hours at the school tolerable. Henry was careful not to let his parents find out about his new friend, as they would strongly oppose him having anything to do with her because she was of Japanese decent. Given that his parents didn’t speak English and he was forbidden to speak Cantonese at home, the secret was easy to keep. It became the first of many secrets he would keep from his parents.
With the war raging on and the fear of spies among the Japanese people rising, it became more and more dangerous for Henry and Keiko to spend time together. Ultimately, the day came when thousand of Japanese-Americans were removed from their homes and put in Internment camps 'for their own safety', as the US government put it. Henry was devastated when Keiko's family was taken away.
Some forty years later, in 1986, Henry tells this story to his college-aged son, Marty soon after news reports arose that items belonging to some of the Japanese families had been discovered in the basement of the Panama Hotel, near Japantown. The old hotel had been boarded up for over 40 years, since the Internment began. The new owners of the hotel hoped to reunite some of the families with their treasured belongings. The hotel held special memories for Henry that until now, he had shared with no one. Henry was reluctant to tell his story to his son for fear of disrespecting the memory of Marty's mother, Ethel, who had recently died after a long fight with cancer. Although Henry was devoted to his wife, he often thought about those times early in his life. Now that Ethel was gone, he knew there were things in that basement that he must try to find.
HOTEL ON THE CORNER OF BITTER AND SWEET is author Jamie Ford's first novel, inspired by his own family's history. It's a beautifully written story of sacrifice, family, forbidden love and loyalty. It was a bit of a history lesson for me as well, because before reading this book, I knew little of the Japanese-American internment camps here in the US. Mr. Ford weaves a very compelling story within details of actual events that were happening on the west coast at that time. He does it by smoothly alternating between 1986 and 1942 capturing the reality of the times.
I was lucky enough to receive an advanced copy of this book and as soon as I started reading, I was hooked. It's an engaging story with characters who were so real to me. I began to care about them almost immediately. Without being too wordy, Jamie Ford paints a vivid picture of what it must have been like, both in Chinatown and the internment camps. He not only tells the story of a young Chinese-American boy growing up in a difficult time, but he also tells the story of a city's changing culture during those war years.
I can't say enough about this book and how much I enjoyed reading it. More and more, I'm enjoying books of historical fiction and this is a great example of why. This would make an excellent pick for any book club. Click here to visit Jamie Ford's website. There, you will find information including an interview with the author, excerpts, tour schedules and information for book clubs. A reading guide is scheduled to be available soon.
The release of HOTEL ON THE CORNER OF BITTER AND SWEET is January 27th, so there's only a few short weeks to wait. I know it's very early in the year, but I'm confident this book will stand out as one of my top reads for 2009. For another review of this stunning debut novel, visit Julie at Booking Mama.
HOTEL ON THE CORNER OF BITTER AND SWEET
Author: Jamie Ford
Publishers: Ballantine Books
Published: January 27, 2009