One day in 1986 Henry Lee stands outside Seattle’s Panama Hotel. The building is being renovated and has been opened up for the first time in over forty years. As Henry watches, a number of items are carried up to the street. These things belonged to the Japanese American families who were ‘evacuated’ from their homes during the second world war. They had stored their possessions in the hotel basement but never came back to reclaim them. This is an important historical discovery, but for Henry it also has personal significance as it brings back memories of one particular Japanese family and a girl called Keiko…
Henry and Keiko are both just twelve years old when they become friends in 1942. He is the only Chinese boy and she the only Japanese girl in an all-white school. Unfortunately Henry’s father disapproves of their relationship – China and Japan have been involved in conflict for years and he considers all Japanese people to be the enemy. And with Pearl Harbor still fresh in people’s minds, Japan is America’s enemy too. Henry’s parents make him wear an “I am Chinese” button when he goes out in case anyone mistakes him for a Japanese boy. When the US government decide to round up thousands of Japanese people and send them to internment camps (allegedly to stop them from spying) Henry and Keiko find themselves separated.
The story of Henry and Keiko’s love and the fate of America’s Japanese population is just one part of Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet; the book also looks at the difficult relationship between Henry and his father, racial tensions in the 1940s, the Seattle jazz scene and the importance of music in our lives. The novel is heartbreaking in places and heartwarming in others (the ‘bitter and sweet’ of the title), yet it never became too sentimental for me. It’s a lovely, tender, moving story from beginning to end, but at the same time it’s a story that helps to educate the reader about an aspect of World War II that rarely seems to be given any attention today. I feel ashamed that I knew nothing about the way Japanese American people were treated during the war and I’m pleased that this gap in my knowledge has now been rectified somewhat.
So many of the books I’ve read recently have dual timeframes. In this book the narrative is split between 1942 and 1986, but for once I found both periods equally compelling to read about. As for the characters, the good ones are very good and the bad ones are very bad, yet they still feel like real, believable people rather than two-dimensional stereotypes. I really loved both Henry and Keiko. They were characters I genuinely cared about and I felt emotionally invested in their story, rather than just being a passive observer. And someone else who deserves a mention is Sheldon, a black saxophone player who becomes a friend of Henry’s, the type of friend I think we would all like to have!
As you might have guessed by now, I really loved this book – and I think it might even be one of my favourite books of the year so far. I had added it to my wish list as soon as it started appearing on so many American book blogs a couple of years ago and now that I’ve finally had a chance to read it for myself I’m so glad it was as good as I’d hoped it would be!