I recently joined a book club with my sister, and I’m so glad I did. In my second month, it’s already introduced me to an incredible novel that I hadn’t heard of before: Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford. My sister picked this one, and I flew through it in just three days. I was instantly captivated, and this is one that will stay with me.
Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet takes us to Seattle, Washington, following a Chinese American man named Henry, first in his childhood in the 1940s, then as an adult in the 1980s.
In 1942, a 12-year-old Henry befriends a Japanese American girl, Keiko. Although Henry’s dad is a Chinese immigrant himself and hates the Japanese due to the conflict between China and Japan, Henry develops a close bond with Keiko. She’s the only other Asian student in their otherwise all-white school, a place where they both often feel invisible. But just months after Pearl Harbor, Keiko and her family are forcibly removed from their Seattle home, sent to an internment camp. This separation may tear apart Henry’s relationship with Keiko – not just during the war, but long after.
Fast forward to 1986, and Henry is recovering from the death of his wife, Ethel. But when a local hotel reopens after 40 years, unearthing the belongings of many Japanese families, Henry finally revisits his past and the friend he lost. With a little help from his son Marty, could Henry have a chance to amend what happened all those years ago?
From the very beginning, I already knew I loved this book. For me, it might start with the Seattle setting: I grew up in the greater Seattle area, and I still live here now. In fact, I’m currently living in Puyallup – another setting in this book! (I’ll get to that momentarily.)
As I found with Chasing the Sun – which I just read one week ago, incidentally – there’s something magical about reading a book set in a place you’ve lived, a place you’ve spent so much time in and know so well. I’ve never lived in Seattle itself, but I’ve visited it countless times, including Chinatown, where this book largely takes place. I know those streets, those landmarks. I found something comforting and welcoming about reading Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet.
That said, this is not exactly a warm, fuzzy tale. It deals with some harsh realities, and I often felt sad, lonely, and angry on Henry’s behalf. He and Keiko face constant racism, from microaggressions to overt discrimination and bullying. Keiko and her family being sent to interment camps is the most egregiously racist attack.
Side note: Sure, some 11,000 German Americans were also detained and sent to internment camps — out of some 12 MILLION residents in the US. Compare that to the near total detainment of Japanese Americans: about 120,000 out of a total of 127,000 residents. That’s pretty clearly due to racism.
Speaking of internment camps – and getting back to the novel itself – one aspect I found both fascinating and disheartening was that Keiko and her family were first sent to an internment camp in Puyallup, Washington. Yes, in the city where I currently live. In fact, “Camp Harmony,” as it was known, was located at the Puyallup Fairgrounds, which I drive by any time I go to the grocery store or need to get on the freeway. It’s sad to know my current home has such a dark history, but it was also interesting to see how the area was 80 years ago. I wouldn’t recognize the mostly farmland and fields of daffodils it was in the 1940s.
By contrast, it sounds like Seattle hasn’t changed much over the decades. The streets are still the same; many of the same buildings still stand. Perhaps this is why I felt so at home reading Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet. And although I have neither Chinese nor Japanese ancestry, I related to the characters and felt fully immersed in their story.
Henry and Keiko are both excellent characters. Both are strong and quietly defiant in the face of unjust treatment. Henry is devoted and brave, loyal and good-hearted. Keiko is smart and kind. I rooted for both of them every step of the way; I celebrated their triumphs and lamented each hardship. They’re kids I would have wanted as friends when I was 12.
Beyond them, the novel highlights rich supporting characters, too. Sheldon and Mrs. Beatty are two of my favorites, each helping out Henry in their own ways. While one is direct and open, the other is more subtle and closed off, but both bolster Henry. Marty and Samantha are also great additions in the 1986 chapters. They bring a youthful optimism and a focus on the future that Henry could use a bit more of. They’re the ones who remind him that it’s never too late to live.
In contrast, Henry’s parents brought a lot of gray area. It’s hard to forgive Henry’s dad in particular. Although I can understand where his perceptions came from, and although he’s of a different era, his actions towards Henry were really low. Henry’s mother, though less problematic on her own, was complicit, and she chose her sides. It’s sad to see a family divided over such differences, but it was heartening to see the progress made decades on.
Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet finds Henry facing the death of loved ones again and again. It starts with his wife Ethel; later in the book he loses a family member and then a friend. Although each death is similar in many ways, they also bring different levels of closure and peace. Some bring tears, while others may bring anger.
On a happier note, one final element of this novel that I adored was the importance of music. Sheldon is a saxophonist playing in Seattle’s jazz scene, and Henry and Keiko are two of his biggest fans. I’m a huge fan of music (hence my music blog), and I’d love to learn more about Seattle’s music scene – not just the grunge of the 1980s and 1990s, which I love, but also this earlier movement. (One book on my list is Before Seattle Rocked: A City and its Music by Kurt E. Armbruster; now I feel newly motivated to go buy it and read it. Stay tuned for its review.)
Hotel on the Corner of Bitter Sweet truly lives up to its name, wavering between points of sorrow and loss and points of hope and happiness. Despite heavy themes and the effects of some shameful acts in American history, there’s a warmth to this novel. It feels dreamy, or like a memory, and is a book I’ll recommend to everyone and reread myself in the years to come.
I truly loved Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet. I’ll have to gift copies to some people I know (no way I’m giving up my own book!), and I’m excited to read more from Jamie Ford.
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