Thursday, 26 June 2014

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet



Author: Jamie Ford
Genre: Historical Fiction (WWII)
Type: Trade Paperback
Source: Public Library
Pages: 290
Publisher: Ballantyne Books Trade Paperbacks
First Published: October 2009
First Line: "Old Henry Lee stood transfixed by all the commotion at the Panama Hotel."

Book Description from GoodReadsIn 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 "scholarshipping" 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.


My Review:  After reading, reviewing and really enjoying Garden of Stones by Sophie Littlefield a year and a half ago I was eager to read more about the experiences of Japanese Americans during WWII as they were 'evacuated' to internment camps based solely on their race by their own government. 

Based on the title and content of the book I think that the author was going for a touching, overly sentimental read but unfortunately I didn't think he quite got there.  There was an obvious Romeo and Juliet theme to the storyline but the emotion that you'd expect to be attached to the characters' experiences was lacking and I never felt a deep emotional attachment to Henry, Keiko or their families.  Honestly, Keiko's family seemed overly positive for the turmoil their family had to deal with on a daily basis and their reactions just didn't ring true for me.

While I applaud the author for making people of this generation aware of the atrocities, racial discrimination and social injustices that Seattle's Japanese Americans had to endure,  I do wish (and expected) the book to deal more with what life was like in the internment camps.  I was hoping for a lot more information regarding Keiko's family's experiences and felt like the author missed an opportunity by not incorporating their viewpoints.

The characters, specifically Keiko and especially Henry seemed very one-dimensional and the emotional elements were thin and overly simplistic.  It had more of a middle school feel to it if I'm being honest.  I also think that more time could have also been used to incorporate some of the secondary characters into the storyline more.  Mrs Beatty and Sheldon were the most intriguing and believable characters in the book but sorely underused. 

If you haven't guessed yet, this was just an okay read for me. I was hoping for something a lot more substantial and emotional but unfortunately there were too many situations that happened far too easily for Henry throughout the book and the anachronisms -- online support groups in 1986? -- didn't win it any points with me either.  Educating people about the blatant racial discrimination of American citizens during that time is the best aspect of this book for this reader.

My Rating: 3/5 stars

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