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-- Garth Stein, New York Times bestselling author of The Art of Racing in the Rain "Jamie Ford's first novel explores the age-old conflicts between father and son, the beauty and sadness of what happened to Japanese Americans in the Seattle area during World War II, and the depths and longing of deep-heart love. An impressive, bitter, and sweet debut."
-- Lisa See, bestselling author of Snow Flower and the Secret Fan
In the opening pages of Jamie Ford's stunning debut novel, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, Henry Lee comes upon a crowd gathered outside the Panama Hotel, once the gateway to Seattle's Japantown. It has been boarded up for decades, but now the new owner has made an incredible discovery: the belongings of Japanese families, left when they were rounded up and sent to internment camps during World War II. As Henry looks on, the owner opens a Japanese parasol. This simple act takes old Henry Lee back to the 1940s, at the height of the war, when young Henry's world is a jumble of confusion and excitement, and to his father, who is obsessed with the war in China and having Henry grow up American. While "scholarshipping" at the exclusive Rainier Elementary, where the white kids ignore him, Henry meets Keiko Okabe, a young Japanese American student. Amid the chaos of blackouts, curfews, and FBI raids, Henry and Keiko forge a bond of friendship-and innocent love-that transcends the long-standing prejudices of their Old World ancestors. And after Keiko and her family are swept up in the evacuations to the internment camps, she and Henry are left only with the hope that the war will end, and that their promise to each other will be kept. Forty years later, Henry Lee is certain that the parasol belonged to Keiko. In the hotel's dark dusty basement he begins looking for signs of the Okabe family's belongings and for a long-lost object whose value he cannot begin to measure. Now a widower, Henry is still trying to find his voice-words that might explain the actions of his nationalistic father; words that might bridge the gap between him and his modern, Chinese American son; words that might help him confront the choices he made many years ago. Set during one of the most conflicted and volatile times in American history, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet is an extraordinary story of commitment and enduring hope. In Henry and Keiko, Jamie Ford has created an unforgettable duo whose story teaches us of the power of forgiveness and the human heart.
First novel is more sweet than bitter
In the opening scene of Jamie Ford's debut, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, 50-something Henry Lee watches as a crowd gathers around the Panama Hotel. The new owner of the long-abandoned building has discovered something in the basement: the belongings of 37 Japanese families, items left behind decades ago when their owners were rounded up for internment camps during World War II.
There's a delicious sense of mystery about this scene. What will we find in the dusty memorabilia? Will its secrets be beautiful or tragicor both? Henry is curious too, and he begins to remember his preteen years during the war and a girl named Keiko. In flashbacks, Ford tells us their story.
The only two students of Asian descent at their school, Chinese-American Henry and Japanese-American Keiko quickly strike up a friendship. But soon it becomes clear that their friendship is much deeper than schoolyard camaraderie. Their feelings for each other are simple, but their love story is complicated: by war, and by Henry's father's ill regard for the Japanese. When Keiko's family is sent to an internment camp, time and tragedy separate her from Henry.
Ford aims to portray the Japanese-American internment with solid historicity, choosing to focus on how the events affected the course of real people's lives. And he succeeds. The book's historical elements are sturdy, but they're very gently threaded into the novel. It's mostly just a good story, one about families and first loves and identity and loyalty.
Ford, of Chinese descent, is the kind of down-to-earth writer you'd like to have a cup of coffee with. His full-length fiction debut might make you fall in love with Seattleor at least start digging up your own city's wartime history and possible jazz roots. It will make you want to call your oldest relatives and ask how they met their spouses. More than anything, though, it will make you linger on the final pages, sure that even the bitterest memories and the most painful regret can yield something sweet.
Jessica Inman writes from Tulsa, Oklahoma.