Synopses & Reviews
In the opening pages of Jamie Ford's stunning debut novel, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet
, Henry Lee comes upon a crowd gathered outside the Panama Hotel, once the gateway to Seattle's Japantown. It has been boarded up for decades, but now the new owner has made an incredible discovery: the belongings of Japanese families, left when they were rounded up and sent to internment camps during World War II. As Henry looks on, the owner opens a Japanese parasol.
This simple act takes old Henry Lee back to the 1940s, at the height of the war, when young Henry's world is a jumble of confusion and excitement, and to his father, who is obsessed with the war in China and having Henry grow up American. While scholar-shipping at the exclusive Rainier Elementary, where the white kids ignore him, Henry meets Keiko Okabe, a young Japanese American student. Amid the chaos of blackouts, curfews, and FBI raids, Henry and Keiko forge a bond of friendship — and innocent love — that transcends the long-standing prejudices of their Old World ancestors. And after Keiko and her family are swept up in the evacuations to the internment camps, she and Henry are left only with the hope that the war will end, and that their promise to each other will be kept.
Forty years later, Henry Lee is certain that the parasol belonged to Keiko. In the hotel's dark dusty basement he begins looking for signs of the Okabe family's belongings and for a long-lost object whose value he cannot begin to measure. Now a widower, Henry is still trying to find his voice-words that might explain the actions of his nationalistic father; words that might bridge the gap between him and his modern, Chinese American son; words that might help him confront the choices he made many years ago.
Set during one of the most conflicted and volatile times in American history, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet is an extraordinary story of commitment and enduring hope. In Henry and Keiko, Jamie Ford has created an unforgettable duo whose story teaches us of the power of forgiveness and the human heart.
"Ford's strained debut concerns Henry Lee, a Chinese-American in Seattle who, in 1986, has just lost his wife to cancer. After Henry hears that the belongings of Japanese immigrants interned during WWII have been found in the basement of the Panama Hotel, the narrative shuttles between 1986 and the 1940s in a predictable story that chronicles the losses of old age and the bewilderment of youth. Henry recalls the difficulties of life in America during WWII, when he and his Japanese-American school friend, Keiko, wandered through wartime Seattle. Keiko and her family are later interned in a camp, and Henry, horrified by America's anti-Japanese hysteria, is further conflicted because of his Chinese father's anti-Japanese sentiment. Henry's adult life in 1986 is rather mechanically rendered, and Ford clumsily contrasts Henry's difficulty in communicating with his college-age son, Marty, with Henry's own alienation from his father, who was determined to Americanize him. The wartime persecution of Japanese immigrants is presented well, but the flatness of the narrative and Ford's reliance on numerous cultural cliches make for a disappointing read." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Sentimental, heartfelt....the exploration of Henry's changing relationship with his family and with Keiko will keep most readers turning pages...A timely debut that not only reminds readers of a shameful episode in American history, but cautions us to examine the present and take heed we don't repeat those injustices." Kirkus Reviews
"A tender and satisfying novel set in a time and a place lost forever, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet gives us a glimpse of the damage that is caused by war — not the sweeping damage of the battlefield, but the cold, cruel damage to the hearts and humanity of individual people. Especially relevant in today's world, this is a beautifully written book that will make you think. And, more importantly, it will make you feel." Garth Stein, New York Times bestselling author of The Art of Racing in the Rain
"Jamie Ford's first novel explores the age-old conflicts between father and son, the beauty and sadness of what happened to Japanese Americans in the Seattle area during World War II, and the depths and longing of deep-heart love. An impressive, bitter, and sweet debut." Lisa See, bestselling author of Snow Flower and the Secret Fan
"[Ford] writes earnestly and cares for his characters, who consistently defy stereotype. Ford posits great meaning in objects...but the most striking moments come from the characters' readings of each other." Booklist
This debut novel tells a heartwarming story of fathers and sons, first loves, fate, and the resilient human heart. Set in the ethnic neighborhoods of Seattle during World War II and Japanese American internment camps of the era, the times and places are brought to life.
About the Author
An award-winning short-story writer, Jamie Ford is the great-grandson of Nevada mining pioneer Min Chung, who emigrated in 1865 from Kaiping, China, to San Francisco, where he adopted the Western name "Ford," thus confusing countless generations.
Reading Group Guide
1. Father- son relationships are a crucial theme in the novel. Talk about some of these relationships and how they are shaped by culture and time. For example, how is the relationship between Henry and his father different from that between Henry and Marty? What accounts for the differences?
2. Why doesnt Henrys father want him to speak Cantonese at home? How does this square with his desire to send Henry back to China for school? Isnt he sending his son a mixed message?
3. If you were Henry, would you be able to forgive your father? Does Henrys father deserve forgiveness?
4. From the beginning of the novel, Henry wears the “I am Chinese” button given to him by his father. What is the significance of this button and its message, and how does Henrys understanding of that message change by the end of the novel?
5. Why does Henry provide an inaccurate translation when he serves as the go-between in the business negotiations between his father and Mr. Preston? Is he wrong to betray his fathers trust in this way?
6. The United States has been called a nation of immigrants. In what ways do the families of Keiko and Henry illustrate different aspects of the American immigrant experience?
7. What is the bond between Henry and Sheldon, and how is it strengthened by jazz music?
8. If a novel could have a soundtrack, this one would be jazz. What is it about this indigenous form of American music that makes it an especially appropriate choice?
9. Henrys mother comes from a culture in which wives are subservient to their husbands. Given this background, do you think she could have done more to help Henry in his struggles against his father? Is her loyalty to her husband a betrayal of her son?
10. Compare Martys relationship with Samantha to Henrys relationship with Keiko. What other examples can you find in the novel of love that is forbidden or that crosses boundaries of one kind or another?
11. What struggles did your own ancestors have as immigrants to America, and to what extent did they incorporate aspects of their cultural heritage into their new identities as Americans?
12. Does Henry give up on Keiko too easily? What else could he have done to find her?
13. What about Keiko? Why didnt she make more of an effort to see Henry once she was released from the camp?
14. Do you think Ethel might have known what was happening with Henrys letters?
15. The novel ends with Henry and Keiko meeting again after more than forty years. Jump ahead a year and imagine what has happened to them in that time. Is there any evidence in the novel for this outcome?
16. What sacrifices do the characters make in pursuit of their dreams for themselves and for others? Do you think any characters sacrifice too much, or for the wrong reasons? Consider the sacrifices Mr. Okabe makes, for example, and those of Mr. Lee. Both fathers are acting for the sake of their children, yet the results are quite different. Why?
17. Was the U.S. government right or wrong to “relocate” Japanese Americans and other citizens and residents who had emigrated from countries the U.S. was fighting in WWII? Was some kind of action necessary following Pearl Harbor? Could the government have done more to safeguard civil rights while protecting national security?
18. Should the men and women of Japanese ancestry who were rounded up by the U.S. government during the war have protested more actively against the loss of their property and liberty? Remember that most were eager to demonstrate their loyalty to the United States. What would you have done in their place? Whats to prevent something like this from ever happening again?