Thursday, March 26, 2009

My Review: Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet

The title of this book first attracted my attention. Jamie Ford is a Chinese-American and this is his debut novel. He has written a story about the bittersweet memories of a Chinese-American man named Henry. It's a story that deals with the father-son relationship, Japanese internment, forbidden love, and the bonds of friendship.

Perseverance in adversity is a theme that runs throughout the story.

The setting is Seattle in 1986 but Henry flashes back to 1942 when he was 12 years old and also to 1945 when he was 15. The hotel referred to in the title is really called the Panama Hotel and it was owned by a Japanese man in the 1940s. In 1986 the new owner discovered personal items that once belonged to the Japanese residents in the area and had been hidden in the basement since the war years. The discovery brought back bittersweet memories for Henry.

Father-son relationship

Henry and his father had a language barrier and a cultural barrier. The language barrier was forced on Henry when his father forbade him from speaking Cantonese at home. At the same time, the parents spoke and understood very little English. The cultural barrier existed because the father was fixed in his traditional nationalistic way of thinking and behaving while Henry was American by birth.

Unfortunately, Henry repeated the pattern in his own life by re-creating the communication gap between himself and his own son. Henry’s wife acted as go-between for Henry and his son thus replicating the role that Henry’s mother played in his own childhood.

Forbidden love

We learn from the first page of the book that Henry was a devoted and loving husband. However, we also discover that Henry had a first love, a Japanese-American classmate named Keiko. This friendship which blossoms into youthful love is initially kept a secret because Henry's father hates the Japanese who are enemies of China and of America.

Japanese Internment

I think the writer painted a detailed picture of what life was like when Japanese-Americans were evacuated from their homes and forced into camps and also what life was like for Henry an Asian-American at home and at school during this period. Henry's father forced him to wear a button that said, I am Chinese, so that he would not be mistaken for Japanese by those who couldn't tell the difference.

Bonds of Friendship

Henry was a loyal friend to Keiko and her family but the friendship that really stands out in this story is the one between Henry and an African-American sax player, Sheldon. This is a friendship that lasted despite the differences in age and race. It was reinforced by their love of jazz.

Final Comments

I thought this historical fiction was told in a very loving and respectful manner. I would give it 4 ½ stars out of 5.

You can not help but be moved emotionally by the treatment of Japanese-Americans in the story, the bullying of Henry at school, and the bonds of friendship in the story.

I liked the writer's use of symbolism. I especially liked the symbolism of the ume tree on pages 82 -85. Ume is a Chinese tree that symbolized perseverance in adversity and this particular one mentioned in the book was grafted from a tree in a Japanese garden. A broken jazz record was also cleverly used as symbolic of the broken relationship of Henry and Keiko.

I liked the touch of humor when Henry deliberately mistranslates a conversation between his father and a Caucasian businessman.

The only thing I did not understand was why Henry's father wanted him to speak only English at home when his intention was to eventually send Henry to China for three to four years.

If you like multi-cultural stories you will enjoy this book. Find out more about this book on the author’s website The photos of the era that inspired this story are on the site: Japanese at Camp Harmony, the Panama Hotel, the No Japanese signs. Check it out.

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