I seem to be on a reading-about-World-War-II jag. The last book was about the Japanese internment, and guess what? This one is too! It’s a theme, even.
Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet. Kickass title for a book, no?
It’s set in Seattle during 1942 (and 1986). Henry, a twelve-year-old Chinese-American boy, lives with his very anti-Japanese father and less-vitriolic mother in Chinatown, right next to Japantown. His parents send him off to a white prep school on scholarship. On Henry’s way out the door, his dad pins a button that reads, “I am Chinese” to his chest.
Therein lies the question. Henry doesn’t self-identify as Chinese, exactly, but he doesn’t see himself as not Chinese, either. Through his friendship with Sheldon, a black jazz musician, and his love for Keiko, an American girl of Japanese descent, he begins to shape his own identity.
The text goes back and forth between 1942, when Henry watched his Japanese friends and neighbors be evacuated, and 1986. Henry’s wife has died after a lingering illness, and he is again as much in search of himself as he was in 1942. A long-abandoned hotel is purchased, and the new owner uncovers a cache of trunks, boxes, and parasols, all belonging to Japanese families who were carted away during World War II. Henry, having just closed the middle chapter of his life, goes back to the first chapter before deciding how to live the last one.
Unlike the last book I reviewed, which was also about the Japanese-American internment, this book is sparse, leaving room between the words for the reader to think, wander, and discover. Jamie Ford does a wonderful job subtly changing the voice for pre-adolescent Henry and middle-aged Henry. The characters are fully developed, but with light, sensitive prose. The plot is engaging, the setting remains a backdrop, and the full horror of what happened in the US during WWII is realized because the reader is required to play along.