Hotel at the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford
This book had everything going for it, and still I had a hard time getting into it. The book was given by Little Diamond to my Mom – Little Diamond often passes along the very best, thought-provoking books, and in our family we pass the best along, so I knew it would be good. I love the title. The book is set in a part of Seattle now called – euphemistically – The International District, but as I was growing up, and among older Seattle-ites, it is called Chinatown, even though that is not politically correct, or geographically correct. Chinatown was never Chinatown, it was a group of distinct populations – Chinese, Japanese, later Vietnamese, Korean, even later Ethiopian, Sudanese, Somali, Pakistan . . . you could call it immigrant-ville, I suppose, if you were really, really politically incorrect. My Chinese friends still call it Chinatown.
Last, but not least, Jamie Ford started this book as a short story at a camp run by Orson Scott Card, one of my favorite authors, especially to recommend to young people. Orson Scott Card knows how to capture the painful contradictions of being teens and young adults, the conflicts with parents, the loves, requited and un, and most of all, he understands how the young see things clearly as unfair; it’s only later when we start seeing shades of grey.
In spite of all those positives, I hated his voice. I hated the smug little Chinese boy he started as, a scholarship student, first generation born in the US, mocking his parents, fighting off bullies. . . Here is what I hated the most. He had a girlfriend, and he didn’t understand chivalry, like walking her home. He protected her, but he was a pretty self-absorbed little boy.
I kept reading because he had some interesting friends. I liked his friend the jazz player, and I liked the gruff lunchroom lady, and I liked his friend Keiko. I understood his parents pushing him to excel, and their not understanding the struggles this caused Henry; I liked his parents. Because the book jumps around in time, I also liked his wife, and felt annoyed that Henry was all caught up in this old romance when he had a perfectly good wife, but I kept reading.
I am so glad I did. About a third into the book, we begin to see Henry transform into the man he will become. He gets help, he gets mentoring from unexpected people, and he becomes more likable.
The book also deals with a terrible time in US history, a time when we turned on our own citizens and sent our citizens of Japanese descent to concentration camps right here in the USA. The Japanese were a class act; most of them were hurt and outraged, but compliant. Many men volunteered to fight in the war in spite of this slap in the face, this accusation of potential treason. It is a shameful time in our own history, and particularly so for Henry, who loves a Japanese girl, Keiko.
By the end, I loved this book. I hope you will, too.