Having a World War II buff for a brother, I know a great deal about the history myself. However, one area in which I am sorely lacking is the treatment of Japanese in America during this time. My very little exposure to the topic arises from a sixth-grade social studies teacher with Japanese origins. She made sure we knew about it, but aside from that, I knew very little prior to reading this book. Since it was for a book club, I did find out a good deal more in my researching the book’s history.
Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet is the story of Henry, a Chinese-American man who experienced World War II as a child. The book alternates between the 1980s and the 1940s. In the 1980s, Henry’s wife has recently passed away after a long battle with cancer. Henry has spent his entire life in Seattle, and finds himself wandering frequently now that he is alone. When the Panama Hotel is revealed to have items leftover in its basement from the Japanese evacuation, Henry’s memories of the time come rushing back to him.
As a child of Chinese immigrant parents in the 1940s, Henry was living in two very different worlds. At home, his parents followed Chinese traditions, but also only allowed him to speak English and sent him to an all-white private school. Being an American child in many ways, Henry defied his parents by subverting their authority. He befriends a black man who plays a saxophone on the street, and then worst of all, becomes friends with a Japanese girl, Keiko, at his school. Keiko, a second-generation American, joins Henry’s school just as the Japanese are becoming a serious threat to America. Because of this, she is immediately an outcast, but she and Henry band together as such.
Their friendship develops fast and they spend a great deal of time together after school hours. All too quickly though, their time together is cut short by the evacuation orders for all persons of Japanese descent, meaning Keiko and her family must leave Seattle. Henry is heartbroken and tries to think of ways to maintain their friendship and even save Keiko from the internment camps.
This book was almost a history lesson to me, but not in a negative way. As I said, the internment camps were not something I learned a great deal about during school. Henry and Keiko’s story is touching and full of trials, which they (mostly) withstand. There is a lot in this book relating to parent-child relationships. Henry’s father is an unforgiving man, and sees the Japanese as enemies, no matter who the person is. The relationship between father and son suffers major blows, with Henry’s father interfering in some underhanded ways.
The book was well-written, heartfelt, and full of memorable scenes. The relationship between Keiko and Henry is as powerful as any adult relationship, and just as heartbreaking. I highly recommend Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, and I was kind of sad when it ended myself.