Book review: Love story is set against painful time in America’s past

Jamie Ford’s bestselling novel. "Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet," is a sentimental love sto

Categories: Life & Arts

When Jamie Ford’s debut novel begins, it’s 1986 and his main character, Henry Lee, is standing on a Seattle street corner watching a television news crew and a mob of onlookers.

Everyone is staring intently at the Panama Hotel, an old Seattle landmark that stood as a gateway back in the early 1940s between Seattle’s Chinatown and Nihonmachi, the city’s Japantown.

“The hotel had always been a perfect landmark,” writes Ford. “A perfect meeting place, where Henry Lee had once met the love of his life.”

Lee wonders if someone found a dead body or a drug lab, but soon discovers that the new owner has unearthed the belongings of 37 Japanese families who had been persecuted and sent away to internment camps in the 1940s.

‘Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet’

AUTHOR: Jamie Ford

PUBLISHED BY: Ballantine Books, 304 pages


Two time periods

Ford’s bestselling novel is a sentimental love story which intercuts two time periods, the early 1940s, when 12-year-old Henry meets, becomes friends and falls in love with Keiko Okabe, and 1986, when the adult Henry begins a search for Japanese items that once belonged to Keiko and her family.

The search leads Henry to some painful and some happy memories and forces him to remember a difficult time period.

Related story

Jamie Ford spoke about his book at SCCC. Click here for more info.

I can see why so many people have enjoyed reading this book since it was published first in hardcover in January 2009 and then in paperback in October 2009.

Henry Lee is a likable character. As a Chinese boy he wants to do what is right and respect his parents, even if that means he must attend the all-white Rainer Elementary School and no longer speak his parents’ native Cantonese at home. “No more,” insists his father. “Only speak you American.”

Henry’s dad forces him to wear a button to school that states, “I am Chinese,” but he is still often referred to as a “Jap” at his school, and he is frequently picked on by bullies.

The only good thing about school is the new Japanese student, Keiko Okabe. He enjoys her company and they have common interests like jazz, but Henry’s father would never let the two of them be friends.

Henry’s dad is a Chinese nationalist who once played host to famed revolutionary Dr. Sun Yat-sen when he visited Seattle to raise money to fight the Manchus.

Henry’s dad said that the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor had been terrible and unexpected, but it paled in comparison to the Japanese bombings of China’s Shanghai and Nanjing.

Unlike Henry’s dad, Henry doesn’t see Keiko as Japanese. He sees her as an American, as someone who speaks perfect English, with parents who are more American than Japanese.

This story really takes off months after the Pearl Harbor attack when Japanese Americans all over Seattle begin being arrested and sent away to internment camps. Many Japanese are forced to hide or destroy pictures and mementoes of Japan so they won’t be arrested and sent away.

Many of them, including Keiko’s family, hide their prized possessions in the basement of the Panama Hotel.

As a reader, I was very touched by the unconditional love between Henry and Keiko. When Keiko’s family is taken away, Henry will do anything to help them, and he must try to do this without the knowledge of his parents, especially his father.

Potential audiences

“Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet” can be enjoyed as a love story and as an exciting historical adventure story. Adults will enjoy reading it, and I could also see it being taught in middle schools and high schools to capture life during this sad period in American history.

Henry Lee and Keiko are characters to cheer for, and Jamie Ford has also done an excellent job at showing why there was so much prejudice during this time.

Even though you dislike the villains, you will understand why they have become flawed characters. The story will also please readers intrigued by stories about the struggles between fathers and sons.

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