Review: ‘Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet’

Minidoka Relocation Center, Idaho

“A Pearl Harbor attack intensified hostility towards Japanese Americans. As wartime hysteria mounted, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 making over 120,000 West Coast persons of Japanese ancestry (Nikkei) leave their homes, jobs, and lives behind and move to one of ten Relocation Centers. This single largest forced relocation in U.S. history is Minidoka’s story.” — National Park Service, Minidoka National Historic Site

“Now, therefore, by virtue of the authority vested in me as President of the   United States, and Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy, I hereby authorize   and direct the Secretary of War, and the Military Commanders whom he may from   time to time designate, whenever he or any designated Commander deems such action necessary or desirable, to prescribe military areas in such places and of such   extent as he or the appropriate Military Commander may determine, from which any or all persons may be excluded, and with respect to which, the right of   any person to enter, remain in, or leave shall be subject to whatever restrictions the Secretary of War or appropriate Military Commander may impose in his  discretion. ” — Franklin D. Roosevelt, in Excutive Order 9066, February 19, 1942, resulting in the relocation into camps of 122,ooo Japanese, many of whom were born in the U.S. and were American citizens.

“The internment of individuals of Japanese ancestry was carried out without any documented acts of espionage or sabotage, or other acts of disloyalty by any citizens or permanent resident aliens of Japanese ancestry on the west coast;  there was no military or security reason for the internment; the internment of the individuals of Japanese ancestry was caused by racial prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.” — Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, April 15, 1988.

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford

Had I written this powerful novel, my black sense of humor would have tempted me to weaken the story of Chinese American Henry Lee and Japanese American Keiko Okabe by including Franklin D. Roosevelt’s name in the book’s acknowledgements. Without his failure of leadership, there would be no bittersweet story to tell.

Ford knew better than that. Lee and Okabe are fictional characters living out their story between 1942 and 1986 against a backdrop of historical fact. Seattle existed in 1942 with Japanese and Chinese enclaves. Many of the residents in both sections of town were property owners, merchants, wives, school children and American Citizens. The Japanese residents of Seattle were removed and taken to Idaho where they were placed within the Minidoka Relocation Center until the end of World War II. Ford lets these facts speak for themselves.

In the author’s note he writes, “My intent was not to create a morality play, with my voice being the loudest on the stage, but rather to defer to the reader’s sense of justice, of right and wrong, and let the facts speak plainly.”

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet is a universal love story. School children from diverse backgrounds meet and become friends. Their friendship isn’t supported by the prevailing social customs, the political realities of the day, or their families. In 1942, Henry Lee was sent to a white school in Seattle because his father thought it was in his son’s best interests. Born in China, Lee’s father dispises the Japanese because they have invaded his homeland. China is an ally of the United States. Since he doesn’t want young Henry to be mistaken for the enemy, he makes him wear a button that proclaims “I am Chinese.”

The other students at the white school see “Chinks” and “Japs” as subhuman and other and too alien to tolerate or befriend. While Henry grew up speaking Cantonese, his father has forbidden him from using it. Becoming a full American means speaking Enlish. When Henry meets Keiko at the school, he is surprised to discover that she’s never spoken any language other than English. Born in the U. S., she’s a full-fledged American even though the students who taunt Henry see her only as his “Jap girlfriend.”

We know before the novel begins that Keiko will be taken away. What we don’t know—actually, what we can’t know unless we have experienced it—is how Henry and Keiko will cope with the daily threats from whites, the ever-present fear of soldiers and FBI agents, the forced removal of people from the “Japantown” enclave in Seattle, or the forced separation that looms large and infinite in a person’s life. In part, the power of this story comes not only from the fact Ford lets the historical facts speak for themselves, but the thoughts and actions of his fictional characters as well. His understatement is finely tuned and carries the story well across its alternating time periods.

In 1942, Henry lives through the days of fear and friendships lost. In 1986, when the old Panama Hotel—a real Seattle Landmark—makes the news because its basement holds the stored-away belongings of many of the “evacuated Japense families,” Henry relives the old days, and wonders if he can come to terms with them and all that he lost and how he lost it. Even “now,” in the 1986 “present day” of the story, he is still wondering and still searching—for exactly what, he’s not sure—but he will know it when he finds  it.

Ford has written a terrifying and poignant love story that’s as haunting as the ever-present jazz music Henry and Keiko love and as filled with hope as two young people in any time period of culture or circumstance who promise they will wait for each other forever.


Coming September 6: Knock It Off, a guest post by Author Smoky Trudeau Zeidel

Fantasy with a sharp edge