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Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet    by Jamie Ford order for
Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet
by Jamie Ford
Order:  USA  Can
Ballantine, 2009 (2009)
Hardcover, Softcover, CD, e-Book

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* * *   Reviewed by Barbara Lingens

This is a beautiful story about a very tumultuous time during World War II in the United States. Few people know very much about the internment of Japanese-Americans that took place on the West coast. Ford (who is of Chinese ancestry) has written movingly about the disruption in people's lives in Seattle, Washington.

Henry, lonely son of an extremely chauvinistic Chinese immigrant, finds a friend in Keiko, a third-generation Japanese-American. When Keiko and her family are taken away to a camp, he even finds the courage to visit her there. Their separation lengthens, and finally all that is left for Henry of Keiko is a forever place in his heart. Years later, a parasol and a broken record become key items that will allow Henry to bear the sadness his life has brought.

The book is written as two stories, the earlier one of young Henry and Keiko, and the later one of the widower Henry with his son. Most of the power lies in the earlier story. Author Ford helps us see the throbbing immigrant life in Seattle and at the same time provides a beautiful characterization of Henry's jazz friend, Sheldon. We really want to know more about Sheldon!

The later story I think could have used a bit more material, such as a more detailed view of the relationship of Henry to his son so that the change at the end has a fuller foundation. But this is really a quibble. There is some beautiful writing in this story, and I know you will enjoy it.

2nd Review by Hilary Williamson:

Jamie Ford's Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet alternates between the early 1940s (after Pearl Harbor) and the present day when fifty-something Chinese American Henry Lee recalls his Seattle childhood and eventually reveals its secrets to his estranged son Marty - and Marty's new girlfriend - after his wife Ethel's death from cancer.

Ford shows us the dreadful incarceration of loyal Japanese American families through the innocent eyes of young Henry who can't comprehend how this can be happening. Henry's fervently anti-Japanese father makes him wear an 'I am Chinese' button, even to the all-white school where he is scholarshipping. There, Henry meets Japanese American Keiko Okabe, also a scholarship student who works with him in the cafetaria and also doing after school cleanup. They become best friends, with a shared interest in jazz.

Gradually, as the hostility and prejudice towards Japanese Americans ramps up, Henry does what little he can against it. He lies to his father, when translating a property developer's request for support in exploiting the Japanese community. And he offers Keiko his button, offering her an out when her family is told to be ready for evacuation. Once they're sent to Camp Harmony, Henry finds ways to visit Keiko there, and even buses to Walla Walla with his older black friend Sheldon (a street jazz musician) after Keiko's family is relocated.

All of this causes a deep rift with Henry's father, though the latter continues to control his son's life to the latter's detriment - as he says on his deathbed, 'I did it for you.' Although the ending was almost too easily contrived, I enjoyed Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet (which reminded me in some ways of Nicholas Sparks' novels) very much, and was anxious to follow Henry's odyssey all the way to its satisfying ending.

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