Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet

by Jamie Ford

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Last Updated on October 4, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 762

This novel by Jamie Ford consists of two distinct narratives. One describes the friendship and romantic attachment between Henry, a young protagonist, and Keiko, a Japanese girl who is interned along with her family by American authorities during World War II. The other narrative follows Henry as an adult and details his efforts to recover his friendship with Keiko and make up for lost time.

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The work opens with the older Henry Lee, grief-stricken from the recent death of his wife from cancer, stopping outside the Panama Hotel in his native Seattle, where a large crowd has gathered. He and the crowd are curious to see the various possessions, formerly belonging to interned Japanese Americans, being removed from the hotel basement. When one of the people displaying the possessions unfurls a Japanese umbrella, Henry’s own memories of life as a young Chinese American boy during the war are triggered.

The young Henry is encouraged to assimilate by his father: to speak only “his English” and to do all he can to adopt American habits and behaviors. Despite his efforts, however, he is badly bullied at school. Even outside of school, he is discriminated against by white Americans erroneously assuming he is Japanese. The arrival of Keiko, a similarly alienated Japanese girl in his class, proves challenging to him at first (given the Japanese aggression in his father’s country), but he soon finds in Keiko a close friend. He also considers the most beautiful girl he has ever seen.

The pair goes on what, in hindsight, constitutes a first date. They attend a jazz concert together, where they buy a record of Henry’s friend Sheldon playing saxophone. When the American government begins interning Japanese American citizens, Keiko and her family among them, Henry starts working at Camp Harmony in order to visit his friend. He even follows when she is relocated to Idaho. Here, he tells her of his romantic feelings for her, which he has experienced for some time and which she herself had reciprocated.

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Henry’s parents are not happy when they discover that their son has been keeping Keiko’s family photos from destruction, and they are even less so when he refuses to give them up. Henry's father, a patriotic Chinese American, sees his son’s actions as tantamount to betrayal, not only of his adopted homeland but also of his native home in China, both countries being at war with Japan. For this reason, he disowns his son. Initially, Henry’s father had hoped to compel Henry into pursuing education in China, since the tide of the war had turned against Japan. He had even purchased him a plane ticket. However, Henry was reluctant, agreeing to go only on the condition that his father use his local influence to save the Panama Hotel from being sold.

Henry has promised to wait for Keiko until she is free of the internment camp, but with his letters ignored time and time again, he soon loses heart. He falls in love with Ethel, a Chinese American girl who is touched by his determination in pursuing Keiko. Henry’s father soon dies. On his deathbed, when Henry finally submits and promises that he will pursue the traditional route of higher education and marriage (to Ethel) that his father always wanted for him, his father admits that he stole the letters that Henry had been sending to Keiko.

While he is outraged by his father’s betrayal, Henry is worn down by the pressures he has resisted for so long, and he feels a certain responsibility to Ethel. Fro this reason, he does not endeavor to pursue Keiko—he marries the other girl instead.

A modern Henry is galvanized into finding his former friend by the discovery of the artifacts in the basement of the Panama Hotel. His narrative, alternating with that of his younger self, describes a journey he undertakes, along with his college-aged son and his son's white fiancée, in order to find Keiko. Mindful of the damaging influence that his father’s views had on him during his childhood, Henry is careful to include his son’s fiancée, and the three grow close as a family group.

The story has a characteristically bittersweet ending: Henry is ultimately successful in finding Keiko, but Ford does not let the reader forget the many years that the pair might have had together. The idealism of romantic devotion is shown to triumph over the realism of politics and war—but this victory is not without cost to those involved.

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