Set for publication January 27th, 2009 from Ballantine Books
When we first meet Henry Lee, it is 1986, and he is walking past the Panama Hotel in Seattle, which has been boarded up since World War II. Henry notices a crowd gathering on the steps of the hotel, and when he approaches, he sees that the new owner is carrying boxes out of the basement, boxes that contain personal items—photos, clothing, diaries, wedding memorabilia—that belonged to Japanese families who were evacuated to internment camps during the war. Seeing these long-lost items takes Henry back to his childhood, and as much as he tries to resist it, the pull of his memories is too strong.
The more Henry thought about the shabby old knickknacks, forgotten treasures, the more it seemed as if his own broken heart might be found in there, hidden among the unclaimed possessions of another time. Boarded up in the basement of a condemned hotel. Lost, but never forgotten.
This opening scene introduces us to Henry’s present-day life, which provides the framework for the story in Jamie Ford’s debut novel Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet. This frame story quickly leads into the main storyline, which takes place in 1942, when Henry is just 12 years old and is “scholarshipping” at Rainier Elementary, an all-white school where he is the only Chinese student. Henry’s father, who is a Chinese nationalist and is immensely proud of being able to send his son to the white school, does not want anyone to be mistaken about Henry’s nationality. The events at Pearl Harbor are fresh in the national consciousness, and Henry’s father is adamantly against the Japanese, so he sends Henry to school each day wearing a button that declares “I am Chinese.” This is the first in a series of incidents that aggravate Henry’s already difficult relationship with his father, and the tension between his father’s traditionalism Chinese values and Henry’s American perspective is a major theme of the book.
As if life as the only Chinese student in an all-white school weren’t difficult enough, the button provokes teasing by several of the class bullies, and Henry’s work-study job serving lunch in the cafeteria becomes the part of the day he dreads the most….until he arrives in the kitchen one day and discovers a young Japanese girl, Keiko Okabe, who has been assigned to the same shift. As the only Japanese student in the school, Keiko identifies with Henry’s plight and is even more tormented by her peers, and the two strike up a lasting friendship.
Though Henry and Keiko are only twelve years old, they understand the risks they are taking by becoming friends. Henry openly defies his father’s rules and walks Keiko home to her family’s apartment in Nihonmachi (the Japanese district), and he sneaks around to spend time with her, hoping that his parents will not find out. Their shared love of jazz music brings Henry and Keiko even closer, particularly when the neighborhood corner musician Sheldon sneaks them into the Black Elks Club to hear Oscar Holden play. That night, Henry and Keiko witness a police raid during which innocent members of the Japanese community are arrested and accused of crimes they have not committed, and they understand that something bad is about to happen. Regardless, that night in the jazz club becomes a sacred shared memory for the two, one that they will hold onto for decades to come.
When the inevitable occurs and Keiko’s family is evacuated, Henry agrees to hide some of their possessions at his home, and he continues to treasure the Oscar Holden record Keiko has given him, for it contains a song the musician dedicated to them that night at the club. Henry and Keiko agree to write each other, but he feels the loss of his best friend deeply. He is dumbfounded by his classmates’ response to the evacuation and does not understand why they are so
Victorious in their home-front battle with a hated enemy. Even if that enemy spoke the same language and had said the Pledge of Allegiance alongside them since kindergarten.
Through circumstances I won’t reveal here so as not to spoil important events in the novel, Henry becomes dispossessed of the Oscar Holden record, and when we meet him in 1986, we learn that he has been searching for another copy ever since.We also learn that though Henry and Keiko went to great lengths to maintain the friendship that eventually became much more, they eventually lost touch. Henry married a woman named Ethel and “never looked back,” and her recent death has left Henry lonely and no longer able to resist the pull of his past. He has spent the last forty years trying to honor his love for Ethel and not think of Keiko.
He loved her enough to let her go—to not go dredging up the past.
Since Ethel’s death, Henry’s relationship with his son Marty has been rather strained. Henry and Marty do their best to reach out to each other, but “after a lifetime of nods, frowns, and stoic smiles, they were both fluent in emotional shorthand.” Marty knows of his father’s life-long search for the Oscar Holden record, but he has never known the whole story. When Henry invites Marty and his fiancee Samantha to help him search through the Panama Hotel—”a place between worlds where he was a child, a place between times now that he was a grown man. A place he had avoided for years, but now he couldn’t keep himself away”—he carefully reveals the story, wanting to share his history with his son without offending him or calling into question his commitment to Ethel.
Henry and Keiko’s time together in childhood is the center of the story, but the framework provided by Henry, Marty, and Samantha’s search through the basement of Panama Hotel in 1986 provides an excellent frame and a metaphor for the pain and joy that can be brought up by digging through one’s memories. Along the way, we come to love Sheldon, the musician, and Mrs. Beatty, the cafeteria lady, who becomes an unlikely ally for Henry following Keiko’s evacuation. We understand the conflict and tension in Henry’s relationship with his father and the fact that it is a microcosm for the difficulty immigrants of all colors experience as they struggle to simultaneously hold onto their cultural traditions and adapt to new ones. We feel Henry’s frustration at being stuck between two worlds—not white enough for this all-white school and not Chinese enough (he doesn’t speak the language) for the Chinese school—and we remember the thrill of first love and the heartbreak of its end.
Jamie Ford has given us a beautiful story told with vivid and cinematic detail, memorable characters, and timeless themes. He creates the corner of bitter and sweet as both a physical place—the Panama Hotel—and Henry’s emotional home-base, and he explores the experiences of Chinese- and Japanese-Americans during World War II with sensitivity and insight. My only complaint is that Ford gives Henry thoughts and feelings beyond the maturity level of most 12-year-olds, but he does it so well that it seems believable. I loved every page of Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, and I didn’t want it to end. I have a feeling this will be one of my favorites of 2009. 4.75 out of 5.