While out walking one day, Henry Lee passes an old hotel in Seattle and spots a woman holding a parasol. The hotel is being renovated, and the new owner has found a room full of belongings left behind in the early 1940s, when the Japanese families in the neighborhood were forced into camps. It is 1986, and Henry’s wife has just died. He’s 56 years old and he’s feeling lonely, and a bit lost. So starts Jamie Ford’s book The Hotel On The Corner of Bitter and Sweet.
He immediately stops, drawn by a long-ago memory of the first time he saw a similar parasol, and the woman who owned it. The story of that woman, how he met her, and what happened to her gradually unfolds as the book moves back and forth in time between the 1940s and 1986.
In the 40s, Henry was twelve years old, and caught between his traditional Chinese culture and the non-Chinese world around him. His father is virulently anti-Japanese and fiercely proud of his Chinese heritage. Yet, he also wants Henry to be more “American”; sending Henry to a private school, and insisting he speak nothing but English at home (though his parents speak only Cantonese).
At school, he meets Keiko, a Japanese-American girl. Both are bullied and tormented for being “different.” It doesn’t matter that they were born in the same city, and the same hospital as the white children. They are different and in that time and place different was bad. Drawn together by their common predicament, they become fast friends.
The question is, how will Henry handle being an outsider? Will he continue his friendship with Keiko? Will he go off to China as his father wants? Or, will he follow his heart?
If you’re a stickler for history, there are, apparently, many historical errors in the book. I caught some of them, others sailed right by me. I recommend you suspend your disbelief (if you can), and just sit back and enjoy Hotel On The Corner Of Bitter And Sweet. Pretend it’s an alternate universe.
About the author:
Jodi Kaplan has been called “The Wizard of Words,” The Clarity Driver,” and the “noing noing machine” — a phrase she refuses to explain. She fixes broken marketing and blogs about it at “Fix Your Broken Marketing.”