Thursday, April 8, 2010

BookLook Review "Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet"

“Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet”

Sometimes you can judge a book by its cover – and its title. The shimmering cover photo design has two children walking under very different umbrellas. The young girl is carrying a beautiful Japanese parasol and the boy, wearing pants that are a little too short, is hidden under a plain American style green umbrella. The title printed across the top, “Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet”, called to me from the library shelf and I’m glad I listened.

Author Jamie Ford has written an impressive award winning novel. He is the great-grandson of Nevada mining pioneer Min Chung who came from China and adopted the Western name “Ford”. It’s a bit confusing to think of Ford as a Chinese American author, but his perspective helps the characters come alive for the reader. The writing is not particularly brilliant but it is so nice to find a book of historical fiction that doesn’t jar the reader with gory violent details, or coarse language that you can overlook his inexperience. It has rapidly become a best seller despite being a debut novel for Ford.

The cast of characters is unique for the 1940’s back story. Henry Lee is a 12 year old Chinese boy who befriends a young Japanese American girl Keiko at their otherwise all-white school. His other friend is an adult African American Jazz musician named Sheldon. This unlikely trio provides a unique view of the infamous round up of Japanese Americans in Seattle and their relocation to internment camps during World War II.

The story of the present day begins in 1986 as Henry watches the once beautiful Panama Hotel begin its path to renovation with a press announcement. The Panama Hotel stood as a gateway between Chinatown and Japantown in Seattle during the war years. It was boarded up and survived demolition until a buyer decided to return it to its former glory. In the basement she discovered hundreds of boxes and crates hidden by Japanese families as they were suddenly forced to leave everything behind. Henry hopes to find the belongings of his childhood friend Keiko.

The title “Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet” does predict the story inside. The story has a few surprises but is mostly dependable as it takes the reader between two time periods and two cultures. Life is bitter and sweet. Decisions are made which bring heartbreak and joy. Commitments are kept and broken and love and forgiveness are possible along the journey.

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