Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, Jamie Ford

It can’t happen here, Henry thought. There’s too many of them. Too many of us.
— Jamie Ford

Japanese Internment has been something I've been both fascinated and revolted by for as long as I've known about it. How on earth do you justify the forced removal of American citizens from their homes just because of their race? Especially while you are fighting the exact same thing (admittedly on a different scale) across the ocean in Europe? At the same time, how did they justify it to themselves? What lessons can we takeaway today? 

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet is set in Seattle before and during Japanese Internment. This novel was actually suggested to me by two different people and so made its way to the top of my list (thank you!). It is a journey of discovery and friendship that is told from the perspective of Henry, a young Chinese-American living in Seattle.

Henry, whose parents immigrated from China, is a young teen when he encounters a Japanese-American girl, Keiko, through their work in the kitchens of the school they attend as scholarship students. The novel follows Henry and Keiko's burgeoning friendship and romance which is set against a backdrop of a forthcoming war and increasing racism. We eventually follow Henry and Keiko through her family's internment and the end of the war. Keiko's impact on the course of Henry's life is moving - it reinforces the fact that one significant person can make you see the world a different way, and maybe make you a little kinder and more understanding. 

At the core of this novel is a question of cultural identity. What does it mean to be Japanese? What does it mean to be American? What does it mean to be an Asian American? Do those identities necessarily conflict? 

What I liked about it:

  • Setting. Reading this book was the first time Japanese Internment felt really personal. That's not to say it wasn't meaningful to me before; but this part of history that happened so many years before my birth, to people I didn't know, is so hard to put into perspective. However, when the story describes familiar Seattle streets and landmarks, it's so much easier to imagine what it would have been like to be forced to wear a tag (this is what your identity is reduced to!?), or having to distinguish yourself from Japanese citizens by wearing buttons saying "I am Chinese," or having to destroy all your most cherished family possessions. 
  • Mixed allegiance. In some ways, I understand the perspective of the narrator, Henry. Henry as a young adult is trapped between two cultures and identities - the American identity his parents are pushing on him and the Asian (Chinese) identity that he has grown up with his whole life. The question of where your allegiances lie, and what it truly means to be American, or Asian, was something I related to. 
  • Perspective. I'd never thought about what it would be like to be Asian during the period of internment - but not Japanese. Even now, in the year 2018, Americans joke (incredibly inappropriately) that they can't tell Asians apart. (Um, excuse me, I'm sure you can tell Chris Pine, Matt Bomber, Henry Cavill and Richard Madden apart!). I imagine it would be infinitely worse during WWII. Henry's perspective as a Chinese American is a fascinating because there's very much an element of "it could have been me, but wasn't." At the same time he suffers many of the same day-to-day discriminations as Japanese-Americans. 

What I didn't like: 

  • Unrealistic. *SPOILER ALERT* Although I know this book is a novel, it felt very unrealistic that not only would Henry be able to find Keiko in Minidoka but on top of that that he would be able to find the original Oscar Holden record in the Panama Hotel, that his son would be able to contact Keiko and get the record to play for Sheldon before his death, and finally that both Henry and Keiko would have lost their spouses before finally reconnecting after all these years. As magical as that all sounds, I think closing the story with a more realistic end would have been much more interesting. Instead, I was left with the feeling that everything wrapped up a little too neatly. 

Favourite Quotes:

  • "Henry, the entire West Coast has been designated as a military area...half of Washington, half of Oregon, and most of California are now under military supervision." 
  • "Letters from Nippon. Clothing. It all must go. Too dangerous to keep. Even old photos. People are burning photos of their parents, of their families." 
  • "Henry looked west to where the sun was setting, burnt sienna flooding the horizon. It reminded him that time was short, but that beautiful endings could still be found at the end of cold, dreary days." 
  • "Each person wore a plain white tag, the kind you'd see on a piece of furniture, dangling from a coat button." 
  • "'Loyalty. We're still loyal to the United States of America. Why? Because we too are Americans. We don't agree, but we will show our loyalty by our obedience. Do you understand, Henry?' All Henry could do was sigh and nod. He knew that concept all too well. Painfully well. Obedience as a sign of loyalty, as an expression of honor, even as an act of love..."