I remember how jarring it was to find out about the Japanese internment camps that dotted the country during the Second World War while reading Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and James Houston’s touching story, Farewell to Manzanar, in middle school. “My government would actually do something like that?” I wondered. I remember asking my father, who admitted that it was the case – and he was also honest enough to admit that he didn’t think right after Pearl Harbor most European Americans felt very bad about what was happening to Japanese Americans, even if in hindsight it makes absolutely no sense.
But I haven’t read anything else about that particular period in American history, so I was happy to see that Jamie Ford’s Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet was on the reading list for my book club’s December meeting. I was hoping to get more of an “adult” view of the time period, since Wakatsuki Houston was writing a memoir of her childhood. In retrospect, that expectation may have been my biggest problem with the book, because what Ford gives us is a very interesting novel told from the perspective of a Chinese American child, Henry Lee, who loses his closest friend, a Japanese American girl named Keiko Okabe, to the internment camps.
I enjoyed this book, but I didn’t love it. I did think Ford did a good job of bringing to life a tension that I frankly never thought about: the rift between the Chinese and Japanese diasporas living on the West Coast of the US during World War II. Pan-Asian tension over Japan’s actions during WWII, and accusations about the country’s subsequent attempts to “whitewash” those actions, still flares up regularly in Asia – in fact, it’s so common there’s a Wikipedia entry called “Japanese history textbook controversies.” Henry’s family in China was clearly at risk during the war, and his parents’ feelings might have been rendered comprehensible to the reader, even if they remained unjustified. Instead, Ford leaves Henry’s family completely unsympathetic throughout the book. I saw that as a major flaw, considering Henry’s decisions toward the end of the novel.
My other big problem with the book was the relationship of Henry and Keiko. Sure, my dad is always saying that people “grew up faster” during the Depression and the War. But I had a really hard time buying into a love story centered on 12-year-olds. If they had been friends for years before the internment order, the story would have made more sense to me. Or perhaps if they’d been older when they met, it might have worked better. The action seemed kind of abrupt, and the rationale simply wasn’t well-developed enough to capture me completely.
My book club had mixed opinions on this one. Many agreed that the characterizations of two of the supporting characters, lunch lady Mrs. Beatty and street sax player Sheldon Thomas, were the best in the book. We also loved the way Ford used the device of the abandoned items from Japantown in Seattle to anchor the story. “Sweet” was a word that came up often in our discussion. But while some were enthusiastic about Ford’s writing style and narrative flow, others weren’t as impressed. Some thought the book had a YA feel, which isn’t necessarily bad, but indicated a lack of character development and ambiguity. I can see why this book has a real following, especially for those who love historically based romances. It is definitely a standout first novel and I would definitely read another Ford title.