Monday, September 27, 2010
Book Review: Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet
Jamie Ford’s Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet (Ballantine Books) is a remarkable story of family dynamics, cultural clashes and bittersweet love that spans all chasms.
Toggling between the war years of mid-1940s and mid-1980s, Ford chronicles the life of Henry Lee, a Chinese American. In the mid-40s, at a time when many Americans were suspicious of all Japanese as the result of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Henry is torn between his loyalty to a school friend, Keiko Okabe, a Japanese American, and his father who has an ancestral hatred of the Japanese.
In the mid-80's, Henry, now widowed, is drawn to the Hotel Panama, an old boarded-up building where, it has recently been discovered, Japanese war-time household effects were stored. Old memories surface, memories that haven’t really been buried that deep.
Ford handles the cultural differences between Chinese and Japanese with honesty and skill. Old World Chinese prejudices leave no room for even a casual friendship with the Japanese, not even with an innocent girl whose family loses their home, their livelihood, their community status, during the Internment years.
Another special friend who ties many of the strings of this novel together is Sheldon, an African American, a saxophone jazz player who brings down-to-earth observations and genuine friendship over the 40-year span of the book.
War is ugly with its gruesome battle scenes, death and destruction, but, as Ford depicts in the story, the devastation goes deeper than that with cruel attitudes and inhumane treatment of innocent individuals caught up in the hatred of a few.
Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet is a satisfying story, told with historic detail and realism. It’s a book that lingers in the mind and heart.