Friday, May 1, 2009

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet
by Jamie Ford

To start off, I just want to say that I really enjoyed this book. I think Jamie Ford is going to be an author to watch! I’m interested to see what he will come out with next.

This book was real and poignant, but at the same time incredibly pleasant and satisfying. I suppose that’s why the title is so perfect. The bitter and sweet tied together—such is life.

The book is set in the 1980s, but switches to flashbacks of Henry’s life in the 40s during WWII. In his youth he meets a sweet Japanese girl named Keiko, and they become fast friends. However, the two are separated when the Japanese are sent to internment camps away from Seattle. Henry fights against his strict Chinese parents to see and correspond with Keiko, much to their dismay. Years, later, when some possessions from Japanese families are uncovered from the Panama Hotel, Henry begins a journey that will mend old long-forgotten wounds.+/-

I really enjoyed the characters in the book, especially Sheldon. He’s a jazz saxophone player, and he and Henry develop a close friendship. Since Henry’s parents have a hard time understanding him (figuratively and literally, since he is only allowed to speak English at home when his parents only speak Chinese), Sheldon becomes a sort of pseudo-parent. He is the friend Henry could turn to when the rest of his life was falling apart. I also liked Mrs. Beatty and Mr. Okabe and, of course, Keiko.

Ultimately, I think the message of the book focuses on the crucial relationship between fathers and sons, and how that relationship can be a difficult one to develop. I think it’s interesting to contrast the relationships of Henry and his father with that of Marty and Henry. It’s amazing to me how similar they are, especially since Henry resented his father so much.

Henry’s father is controlling and manipulative and expects him to follow a certain pattern in his life, a pattern ruled by his Chinese heritage. And although Henry resents his father, he feels the immense guilt heavily when Henry fails to please him. No matter what Henry does to fight against it, he ends up entrenched in his father’s master plan. The mother was always the connecting thread between them, although Ethel’s death brought Marty and Henry closer in the end, while I think Henry’s mother’s death would have had catastrophic effects on Henry.

And while Henry always hated his father’s dictatorship, he still perpetrated some of those same expectations on his own son, Marty. It was obvious to me that, even though he disagreed and fought with his father as Henry had with his, Marty still desperately wanted to please Henry. He wanted Henry to be proud of him and accept him. I loved how Henry’s standoffish behavior began to change as he finally understood that Marty viewed him as the same controlling figure that his father had been. And as Henry opened up to Marty and shared his life with him and as Marty did the same, their relationship began to change. I think Henry and Marty were both able to let go of pain as their respect for each other increased. It’s unfortunate that Henry and his father were never able to come to that sort of truce.

Switching gears, I think the book did a good job of highlighting the realities of the internment of Japanese-Americans during WWII. It’s not something I ever remember learning about in school; in fact, I don’t think I actually knew it even happened until I was in college. And although I am happy that something like this did not happen after 9/11, I think this book is a good example of how prejudice works when a country is at war. The fear that makes people do things they shouldn’t, and wouldn’t do, if they were in their right minds. It’s frightening to me to think that it’s so easy to be ruled by that fear, even an entire nation that stands on a precipice of freedom.

I researched a little about the internment after I finished the book, and it really astonished me just how many camps there were; how many people were displaced and their lives were destroyed so that they had to start all over from nothing again when they were released. Ford’s descriptions of Japantown really made this come alive for me—how it was still there but it was never the same. I loved the part where Henry goes looking for Keiko in Japantown, and he describes all the mayhem of the neighborhood, finally finding her in the park among the cherry trees. And then, how that bustling chaos of community was gutted and abandoned. Only to be rebuilt an entirely different way. It made me understand the loss in absence. Keiko and her family could go home if they wanted to, but they’d probably have to buy their property again, since it had been seized and re-sold, and their neighborhood would be completely different. That happy time could never be recovered.

In a way, I think Japantown represents Henry. It was bittersweet to see Henry change from a scared and uncertain little boy, to a curious preteen, to a stubborn teenager, to a quiet and accepting adult. He had to grow up fast; I think every child living in that time had to. And although Henry endures the secret stabbing pain of what ifs, his life is still a full and satisfying one, though tinged with a certain sadness of a life turned down a different path. Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet is just that, but the end is a gratifying one, and we are all reminded to take joy in the sweetness of life, no matter at what time or how hard or easy it is to find.

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