Friday, September 23, 2011
Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet
Henry is 12, the only Chinese boy at Rainier Elementary, an all-white school in Seattle. It's 1942, and he is miserable. Then Keiko, Japanese, transfers to Rainier and she and Henry become fast friends. But Japanese Americans are considered potential spies and all around the city they are being mistreated, eventually rounded up and relocated to internment camps.
How does a boy, easily mistaken himself as Japanese, make sense of what goes on around him, even in his own home? How does he cope with injustice? How does this nightmare of his youth shape him as an adult? These are all themes woven into the fabric of this poignant, moving story.
When we first meet Henry, he is in his mid-50s and the Panama Hotel, which has been boarded up for years, is being opened and renovated. The new owner has just discovered that the basement is filled with the belongings of families who had been interned, and Henry is suddenly back in Chinatown and Nihonmachi (Japantown), 12 years old again. Throughout the book, which gracefully moves between 1942 and 1986, we are drawn into Henry's life and find ourselves in his very neighborhood, peeking into his window.
In writing Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet Jamie Ford has created believable characters whom we come to know intimately -- Henry's father who spends his days devouring the news of Japan's rise and fall and insists Henry wear an "I am Chinese" button; Sheldon, the saxophone playing street musician who introduces Henry to jazz; Mrs Beatty, the school cook whose hard exterior has just enough cracks to reveal a raw heart.
Seattleites will feel at home in this book as we travel the streets of Seattle -- Jackson, Maynard, Denny, going to Kobe Park and King Street Station, riding the ferry to Vashon and shopping at Rhodes Department Store. Ford paints a picture of 1942 Seattle with enough that is familiar to us today that we can easily imagine it 70 years ago.
I loved the book for so many reasons -- for the familiarity of the city; for the character of Henry; for Keiko's family; for the clearer understanding I gained of the Internment; for the sweet that co-existed with the bitter.
One day I will go to the Panama Hotel for tea. It's still open, you know. I'll look at the items they have on display as I drink my bittersweet tea. I wonder if I'll see Henry...