Saturday, October 23, 2010
Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford - A Review
I posted a week or so ago about hearing Jamie Ford speak about writing Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet. I promised to post a review after I read it, figuring it would be several weeks before I'd have time.
I have to regulate the fiction I read because I have no will power. Once hooked into the story, I let everything else slide until I'm finished with the book. Since I still have a day job, and if I want to keep up with my writing, I have to ration the amount of fiction reading I allow myself to do, or else I never get anything done.
However, Jamie Ford's book sat on my bedside stand tempting me, and I made a pact with myself that I could read it now, but only after I got my assigned daily list of tasks done each day. What a concept! I should have tried that years ago.
Not only that, but I think Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet--which I'll just call Hotel for the purpose of this blog--is better read that way, because it's a narrative that will stay with you, and you get to savor it, to think about each part in the intervals between .
This is the story of a young Chinese American boy, Henry Lee, on the cusp of adolescence just before the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Henry attends a private school where the only other Oriental is a Japanese girl named Keiko. They become fast friends, and when Keiko's family is uprooted and sent to an internment camp, Henry must not only deal with his loss, but he also must deal with his father's attitude toward the Japanese in general and this girl in particular.
This book reminds me of a gold filagree brooch. Gold, because gold doesn't tarnish, and this story is as old as time. Filagree, because the strands for Henry, his father, and his son, Marty, all follow parallel lines as they wind around, echoing the aspirations, unspoken love, and cultural gulfs each father experiences as he deals with his son. And the ones each son experiences as he deals with his father.
Jamie Ford said that Hotel is a love story, and it is. But it's more than Henry and Keiko's story. Love is there in abundance, and we see it through the lens of Henry's young heart, mind and memory.
We see the deep bond of friendship between Henry and Sheldon, a jazz musician who busks on a corner in the international district of Seattle.
We see the love Henry's mom has for him as she strives to mitigate her husband's unbending rules for bringing up their son.
We see the love of Keiko's family for each other and for America, in spite of the raw deal America has given them.
We see the love of Ethel, the absent character who appears in the flesh only at the end of the story. I wonder about Ethel. I won't give anything away, but I wonder, was Henry was too innocent and naive? Was Ethel too biddable as a young Chinese woman? Or, was her appearance on the hotel steps perhaps her own little rebellion? If so, I like her more for it.
Hotel is a haunting story, beautifully written. As a writer, I'm blown away by the way it's plotted. Jamie Ford has done a masterful job of structuring the story to give you clues that you accept without even knowing the significance they will have as the story goes along. Like the everpresent I Am Chinese button Henry's father makes him wear as protection against the anti-Japanese phobia existing on the west coast right after Pearl Harbor. You realize it has implications far beyond that stated purpose. And the jazz theme. A whole essay could be written on that alone.
Each character is drawn with care--mostly with love, even though they might not be completely loveable. I would say that Chaz is the only one Henry doesn't remember with affection. I particularly liked the way Jamie Ford drew Mrs. Beatty, a minor character that we never even get on a first-name basis with but who has a knowing, pivotal role in the playing out of this love story. Bless her husky heart, she's a good woman.
I thank Jamie Ford for this bit of Seattle History. I live in Northwest Washington, and I'll never think about the Puyallup Fair Grounds in the same way again. Yes, there was bitter along with the sweet.