Henry didn't even hesitate. He touched the doorknob, feeling the brass cold and hard in his hand. He looked back, speaking his best Cantonese. "I am what you made me, Father." He opened the heavy door. "I...am an American." (from Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, page 185)
Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet is a beautifully written story set in Seattle that takes readers back and forth in time as they follow the story of Henry Lee. In 1986, Henry is in his 50s and dealing with the recent death of his wife, Ethel, when the new owner of the Panama Hotel unearths the belongings of numerous Japanese families in the basement -- Japanese families who left their photographs and other personal items behind when the U.S. government shipped them off to interment camps during World War II. The announcement causes Henry to reminisce about his best friend and first love, Keiko Okabe.
In 1942, Henry and Keiko are 12 years old and struggling to fit in at their all-white school. Henry is a Chinese American whose father orders him to speak only English in their home -- even though his parents' inability to understand the language means they no longer communicate with their son -- and wear a button stating "I Am Chinese" so that he is not mistaken for the Japanese "enemy." The button does little to stop the bullies at school from beating up on him because of his race. Keiko is a Japanese American who doesn't even speak Japanese and finds herself unwanted by her country, the only country she's ever known. Henry knows his parents wouldn't approve of his friendship with Keiko, but even when she and her family are sent to internment camps, he keeps in touch with her -- at least at first.
As a grown man, Henry is trying to forge a relationship with his college-aged son, Marty, and is still dealing with his feelings for Keiko and his issues with his father. He finds himself drawn to the Panama Hotel and the items in the basement and begins looking for something that will bring him face-to-face with the past.
In Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, Jamie Ford has created such endearing characters in Henry and Keiko, whose innocence is marred by the ignorance of a country at war. The first word that comes to my mind when I think about Ford's handling of Henry and Keiko's young love and Henry's love for Ethel and desire to care for her through a difficult illness is tenderness. He successfully balances this tenderness with the harsh treatment of Asian immigrants and their American-born children, allowing readers to feel Henry's anger and confusion. As a Chinese American himself, Ford does a wonderful job presenting the conflicts in Henry's relationship with his father; readers can understand that his father wants the best for him, but we feel a great sadness that his own prejudices and stubbornness stand in the way of a loving relationship. The bitter and the sweet converge several times, creating a story that tugs at your heart. I was drawn to Ford's writing and Henry's story from the very beginning, and it was difficult to put the book down.
Click here for an excerpt and a reading group guide.
Jamie Ford is the great-grandson of Nevada mining pioneer Min Chung, who emigrated in 1865 from Kaiping, China, to San Francisco, where he adopted the western name "Ford," thus confusing countless generations. Ford is an award-winning short-story writer, an alumnus of the Squaw Valley Community of Writers, and a survivor of Orson Scott Card's Literary Boot Camp. Having grown up near Seattle's Chinatown, he now lives in Montana with his wife and children.
Stay tuned for my interview with Jamie Ford.
Click here to see the rest of the blog tour stops for Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet.
Disclosure: I received a free copy of Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet from Random House for review purposes.