by Jamie Ford
In 1986, at age 56, Chinese–American Henry Lee watches as modernization comes to the derelict and long abandoned Panama Hotel, long the gateway to Japantown in Seattle. As a new owner prepares to remodel the building, she discovers in the basement the belongings of 37 Japanese–American families, left behind when they were sent to spend the World War II years in the now–infamous internment camps. This discovery evokes in Henry memories of his own experiences of the war years, and especially of his first love, Japanese American Keiko Okabe, a fellow student at the private school he attended, whom he never saw again after she and her family were sent to the camps. What Ford does so nicely in Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, his first novel, is give us a picture of the war years from the point of view of a Chinese–American boy, a young man whose non–English speaking father tries to deal with the strong and frightening anti–Japanese sentiment by making his son wear a button that says “I am Chinese,” in the mostly futile hope that Henry can thereby escape the prevalent racism. Although I’ve read many novels that touched upon the discrimination against Japanese–Americans during WWII, Ford’s book presents a point of view that I’d never encountered before. Ford does a fine job transitioning the reader between present and past; those sections set in the present day explore Henry’s relationship with his own son, as well as his attempts to finally locate Keiko and put the past to rest. Ultimately, this is a book about memory and regret. It reminds us that the great events of history take place not only on the world stage, but also reverberate throughout the lives of individuals, even the young and innocent. Fans of David Guterson’s Snow Falling on Cedars will definitely want to check this out. Ford based part of his book on real events: the Panama Hotel was remodeled, and the belongings of Japanese Americans were found, so a nice bonus for readers of this book who visit Seattle is that the Panama Hotel offers tours of the building, as well as great tea and coffee.