You feel the injustice of imprisoning innocent people. You also grasp the tension of the time—the chilling, unprecedented Pearl-Harbor fear that swept the nation and the West Coast in particular (including Seattle, the setting for this novel) after that famously infamous attack.
This is author Jamie Ford’s first novel, and yet he displays a seemingly effortless talent for making history as unexpected as it actually was. We see the shock of Japanese Americans as they are suddenly ostracized and then rounded up for relocation. We meet young Henry Lee, a twelve-year-old, first-generation Chinese boy whom his parents literally label, in order to save him from being mistaken as Japanese.
Henry is on scholarship to a white school, requiring officially that he work in the kitchen, and unofficially that he withstand the fists and taunts of his mainstream classmates. There he meets another scholarship kid, also assigned to kitchen duty, a Japanese girl. And we’re off to an old, but ever-new, love story set in a world at war.
Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet examines enduring issues. Must my father’s enemy be my enemy? Can immigrants ever really understand their first-generation children, and they their parents? When does loving parental guidance become unhealthy coercion? What is the right path when heart and duty point in opposite directions? Would you ever go to war for a country that imprisoned you? stole your property? damaged the people you love the most?
But I’m recommending Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet not only because of how powerfully it raises such timeless questions. I’m recommending the book because it is a work of art.
Somewhere amidst the fluttering photographs, the boarded-up buildings, the jazz spilling from segregated nightclubs out onto wet Seattle streets, I realized that this novel is one of those works of fiction that becomes literature. I might reach for words such as magical, moving, transcending and others people use to describe art, but like others, I would fail—fail to convey by other means an experience that must be had.
I recommend Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet because experiencing literature feels good in ways we can’t well describe, yet makes us want to try.
How about you, dear reader? Are you participating in your community’s Read Together campaign this year? I’d love to hear what you’re reading. Just click on the Comments link below with your submission. (If you’re reading this as an email, click here and you'll connect to Comments).
Postscript: Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet is available in paperback, hardcover, digital and audio. I listened to Feodor Chin narrate the unabridged audiobook and loved his voices for the young hero and heroine, as well as the many adults of diverse ethnicity. I also bought the beautiful hardcover, which I wrote in, and then photographed, before passing the book to my sons.