Library Director’s Notebook
Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, with its delicate cover painting of a man and a woman, standing apart, engulfed by their umbrellas, might at first glance appear to be a simple, predictable romance or classy example of “chick lit”. However, this novel, written by Jamie Ford is as much about the quest for personal identity as it is about the search for love.
Set both in the mid-1940’s during the bleakest days of World War II, and forty years later in 1986, this novel focuses on the coming of age of Henry Lee, an American born boy of Chinese descent who is torn between his puzzlement and desire to fit in with the white world of America and his confusion about the values and demands of his fiercely pro-Chinese/anti-Japanese father.
With America deeply involved in the battle of the Pacific, Henry, with his obviously Asian features, is forced to wear prominently a pin that identifies him as Chinese. His less fortunate Japanese neighbors, living only streets away, do not have access to such protective identification and would soon be rounded up for their own “protection” and forced into detention camps, innocent victims of one of the most sordid and shameful actions in American history.
Among those Japanese residents herded into the detention camps is young Keiko Okabe, a beautiful and talented girl who, despite the blistering antagonism of Henry’s family and the growing precariousness of Japanese life in America, befriends Henry in their otherwise all-white school. Keiko’s own family, well- educated Japanese professionals who are also American citizens, encourage the friendship between their daughter and Henry , while holding fast to their belief that the America they love will deal with them justly. Their earnest hopes are powerless to protect them from the detention camps, however; or from the relentless loss of their jobs, homes, property, and civil rights. Henry and Keiko struggle to keep their friendship alive, with the barbed wire of the detention camp separating them; but the odds and history are dead set against them.
Henry himself suffers from his father’s coldness and scorn, the brutality of school bullies who see no need to discriminate between “chinks” and “japs”, and most importantly, from his own inability to understand and articulate his tangled thoughts and feelings. At times feeling neither Chinese nor American, Henry often believes he belongs nowhere; is understood and valued by no one. Although he befriends a generous-hearted black street corner musician named Sheldon and finds himself more and more drawn to Keiko, Henry has a long road to follow before he can discover the measure of his own heart or the value of his own identity.
In the end, the bitter and the sweet claim equal shares in Henry’s life. The past and the present are tightly coiled, and secrets are carefully hidden or suppressed for decades. Yet, even in late middle age, Henry discovers that life can hold some astounding surprises.