Sunday, March 13, 2011

211 (2011 #16). Hotel on the the Corner of Bitter and Sweet

by Jamie Ford,
read by Feodor Chin

This was a wonderful love story, read first by my old book club back in the Seattle area, and last month by my local book club.  It's set in Seattle, in 1942 and 1986. 

Henry Lee is a 56-year-old recent widower in the latter year, when the story begins, passing by the Panama Hotel in Seattle when the hotel's new owner displays items found in the basement.  One of them is a colorful Japanese bamboo parasol that triggers memories for Henry.

In 1942, first-generation Chinese-American Henry is the only non-white at (fictional) Rainier Elementary in Seattle, forced to work in the kitchen at lunch and clean after school.  He is soon joined by second-generation Japanese-American Keiko Okabe, and they become fast friends, despite Henry's inability to introduce her to or even tell his parents, staunch Chinese nationalists, about her.  Henry's father makes him wear an "I Am Chinese" button everywhere he goes, so he won't be confused with the enemy Japanese.

Later Keiko and her family and all those living in Nihonmachi, Seattle's Japantown, are forced to leave and taken to the temporary "Camp Harmony" at the Puyallup Fairgrounds, south of Seattle.  Before they go, many families leave their belongings in the basement of the Panama Hotel, then owned by Japanese.

The cook at Rainier, Mrs. Beatty, becomes part of the staff helping to feed the internees at Camp Harmony, and she brings Henry along as her helper on Saturdays.  Not surprisingly, he's able to meet with Keiko there.  After Keiko and her family are transferred to the Minidoka Relocation Center in Idaho, Henry and his older jazz-sax-playing black friend Sheldon travel there so Henry can visit, and Henry and Keiko agree to correspond.

As the war goes on, though, Keiko's letters stop coming.  Eventually Henry moves on with his life, going back to China to finish his schooling, and marrying a Chinese-American girl.  He never quite forgets Keiko though.

I love the plot and the ending--it's a wonderful tale with themes of lost love, hope, and reconciliation with one's past.  I love the way author Jamie Ford built in real people and places (like jazz great Oscar Holden and Bud's Jazz Records in Pioneer Square), and made me feel like I was back in Seattle (I lived there for 21 years, including 1986). 

As historical fiction, though, this book does not succeed, because of many inaccuracies.  The first of these appear on page 4 of the hardcover first edition (and are in the audiobook).  The text states that Marty, Henry's son, was "dealing with his mother's death through an online support group," and in the same paragraph, Ethel, Henry's wife, "was interred with...Bruce Lee and his own son, Brandon."  The latter is impossible as Brandon Lee did not die until 1993.  The former is improbable:  very few people had access to online support groups in 1986.

Other reviewers have pointed out problems with World War II accuracy and translation of the Japanese phrase "Oai deki te ureshii desu" that are important to the plot.  These may seem trivial, except that the publisher has developed a teacher's guide for the book.  While it appears the author has done his homework on the internment camps and aspects of Seattle life in 1942, the other inaccuracies would make me question the veracity of that research, and thus hesitant to use this book in a classroom setting - at least not without a discussion of the book's problems BEFORE the book is read.

Another problem is the age of Henry and Keiko in 1942.  Although children in that era, and particularly from those cultures, tended to be more mature than children of the same age today, I still found the thoughts, feelings, perspectives, and relationship of Henry and Keiko to be unrealistic for twelve-year-olds.  I ran readability tests on an excerpt from the book and it measured out at a seventh- to tenth-grade reading level.  However, for the reasons mentioned above (and the length of the book, 285 pages), if I were to use it in a classroom, it would be with the older end of that grade range.  Would such students find this story about twelve-year-olds enjoyable and believable?  I think Ford could have made these characters a little older (maybe 14) and still maintained their idealism and innocence (especially for 1942).

While I can't recommend the book for classroom use (unless as described above), I can recommend it as an enjoyable read, and one that will make you think and want to learn more about this sad episode in American history.  It was a good choice for both book clubs as it generated a lot of discussion about the internments as well as the historical inaccuracies.  Actor Feodor Chin does a fabulous job narrating the audiobook and handling the accents.

© Amanda Pape - 2011

[This audiobook  was borrowed from and returned to my university library.  A hardbound copy of the book for reference was borrowed and returned through interlibrary loan.] 


  1. I read this book only because the book club I plan on attending for the first time tomorrow has chosen it for their book of the month. Even if I don't enjoy the club I'll be thankful to it for introducing me to this story. It's a beautiful one and one I'll be reading again.

    1. Thank you for commenting, Belgie! It is a wonderful story even if there are some inaccuracies.