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Saturday, November 26, 2011

Department of Book Reports: Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford (Random House, tp $15)I hadn't had a chance to read this back when it came out, and recently a customer was telling me how much her whole book club enjoyed reading it together. Carol was right! This is, as the title says, a bitter sweet love story set in Seattle's Chinatown and Nihonmachi district. Henry Lee has just lost his wife Ethel to cancer in 1986, when he learns that the belongings of 37 families have been discovered in the basement of The Panama Hotel. On the eve of relocating to the Japanese internment camps of WWII, people had stored their possessions in hopes of returning someday to start their lives over again. This part of the story is entirely true, The Panama Hotel stands today, and you can see the trunks and cartons through a piece of plexiglass set into the floor of the renovated Tea Room.

Henry was a scholarship student at an exclusive all-white school in the lead up to Pearl Harbor, and his best friend was the only other Asian "scholarshipping" student, Keiko Okabe. Henry's father hates the Japanese and feels the deportment is "Better them than us", and he makes Henry wear an "I am Chinese" button whenever he goes out. Henry has to hide his friendship and later love of Kieko from his family. Sheldon, a sax playing street busker protects Henry & Kieko from teasing and abuse as they walk to school or sneak into the after hours Jazz clubs along Jackson Street. When Sheldon gets a gig with Oscar Holden at the Black Elks Club, he gets to play on the only recording ever made of the band, and this album will a longlost touchstone for Henry & Keiko. Sheldon will come to help Henry visit Keiko at Minidoka, a very long trip those days in the belly of the big dog (Greyhound). Later, back in Seattle, Henry thinks Keiko has forgotten him, never suspecting his father of intercepting her letters. It won't be until the mid-eighties that Henry & Keiko will hear the Alley Cat song again that Oscar Holden had dedicated to the young couple.

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet is a love story during one of America's most horrible episodes and a touching examination of father and son dynamics, both the staunch autocrat of his father and Henry's relationship with his own most modern son, Marty. The setting is historically accurate as you can see by the links I included above.

The book, of course, is available at Jackson Street Books, as well as other fine independent bookstores.

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We'll try dumping haloscan and see how it works.