Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet

Written by Jamie Ford
Review by Helene Williams

In World War II Seattle, Henry Lee, the son of Chinese immigrants, faces a changing world. On one side are his parents, who, wanting an American life for their son, have arranged for him to “scholarship” at the whites-only Rainier school. They forbid him to speak Chinese at home, though they insist he honor Chinese customs. On another other side are his prejudiced classmates; on yet another is Sheldon Thomas, a black saxophone player, a friend and protector to Henry. Directly in Henry’s path, and central throughout his life, is Keiko Okabe, a second-generation Japanese-American who is also on scholarship at Rainier. She and Henry battle the iniquities and bullies of the time, but are separated when the military evacuates everyone of Japanese descent to internment camps.

Fast forward forty years to Seattle in 1986, when the new owner of the long-boarded up Panama Hotel unearths the belongings of Japanese families who hoped to return after the war: could some of these ancient suitcases and boxes hold a clue to Keiko and her family? Henry has never forgotten his first love, and now that his wife has died, he has some time and emotional energy to think about Keiko.

Ford’s debut novel alternates between the 1940s and 1980s timeline, weaving together the young and old Henry, his past experiences with current attitudes and realizations. The descriptions of Seattle, then and now, are vivid and accurate, from the views to the sounds to the smells. The bullies of Henry’s childhood are also realistically evoked, as are the few friends he finds. This story truly is both bitter and sweet, and Ford has done an excellent job of combining historical fact with fictional narrative for a captivating read.