The Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet is a historical novel that takes place during WWII on the West Coast, when fears are acute and spies are imagined everywhere. President Roosevelt has signed Executive Order 9102, passed by Congress, giving the government the authority to relocate first and second generation Americans of Japanese descent to internment camps. Even though they were told this was for their own safety, they knew they were being corralled, detained, watched.
Jamie Ford uses this newsreel of history as background, but the internment camps and the mass relocation of Japanese Americans are not the central story. His novel is a love story of forbidden love, parental pressure, prejudice and coming of age. This is a timeless tale of love for any age. For love knows nothing about race as the heart is what beats with passion.
In Seattle, in an area once called Japantown stands the deserted Panama Hotel, and Henry Lee is standing watch. The year is 1986 and Henry has lost his wife to cancer; he has a grown son Marty. Standing outside the hotel, he is reminiscing about the past 40 years as he watches the workers carrying things out of the hotel. The once grand hotel was a condemned structure until recently bought.
Now during construction on the renovation project a collector’s dream of memorabilia from the 1940s has been discovered in the basement. Henry remembers back to when the evacuees were restricted to what they could bring, many used the basement of the hotel and similar places for storage. He knows there could be something of value to him, but he won’t know what it is till he finds it. How strange.
The second part of the story takes place in 1942, when Henry is just a young boy. In 1942 Henry Lee, a Chinese American, meets Keiko Okabe, who is a Japanese American. They attend a white prep school and are subjected to racial ridicule because of their appearance. Henry likes Keiko and they become friends. When his father, a Chinese nationalist, finds out about their friendship he is furious and he forbids any further contact with the girl. As a result, communication breaks down between Henry and his father and conversations end. As the Okabe family gets ready to move to Camp Harmony, Henry and Keido promise to remain friends and write.
I couldn’t put this book down! Jamie Ford’s love story touched me deeply. He captures the feelings of the family prejudice and the difficulties anyone faces in a forbidden relationship as if he lived it. The struggle to gain acceptance and please everyone is bitter and sweet. As one who shared a similar fate, this story is a cherished gift like finding Sheldon’s broken record.
Memorable characters throughout support Henry including Mrs. Beatty, the cafeteria person at his school, who has a hidden heart of gold and Sheldon the sage old sax player of Jazz. A beautiful endearing story — don’t miss this one.