Summary and book reviews of Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet

A Novel

By Jamie Ford

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet

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Book Summary

One of BookBrowse's Top 3 Favorite Books of 2009

In the opening pages of Jamie Ford’s stunning debut novel, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, Henry Lee comes upon a crowd gathered outside the Panama Hotel, once the gateway to Seattle’s Japantown. It has been boarded up for decades, but now the new owner has made an incredible discovery: the belongings of Japanese families, left when they were rounded up and sent to internment camps during World War II. As Henry looks on, the owner opens a Japanese parasol.

This simple act takes old Henry Lee back to the 1940s, at the height of the war, when young Henry’s world is a jumble of confusion and excitement, and to his father, who is obsessed with the war in China and having Henry grow up American. While “scholarshipping” at the exclusive Rainier Elementary, where the white kids ignore him, Henry meets Keiko Okabe, a young Japanese American student. Amid the chaos of blackouts, curfews, and FBI raids, Henry and Keiko forge a bond of friendship–and innocent love–that transcends the long-standing prejudices of their Old World ancestors. And after Keiko and her family are swept up in the evacuations to the internment camps, she and Henry are left only with the hope that the war will end, and that their promise to each other will be kept.

Forty years later, Henry Lee is certain that the parasol belonged to Keiko. In the hotel’s dark dusty basement he begins looking for signs of the Okabe family’s belongings and for a long-lost object whose value he cannot begin to measure. Now a widower, Henry is still trying to find his voice–words that might explain the actions of his nationalistic father; words that might bridge the gap between him and his modern, Chinese American son; words that might help him confront the choices he made many years ago.

Set during one of the most conflicted and volatile times in American history, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet is an extraordinary story of commitment and enduring hope. In Henry and Keiko, Jamie Ford has created an unforgettable duo whose story teaches us of the power of forgiveness and the human heart.

A video tour through Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet

The Panama Hotel (1986)

Old Henry Lee stood transfixed by all the commotion at the Panama Hotel. What had started as a crowd of curious onlookers eyeballing a television news crew had now swollen into a polite mob of shoppers, tourists, and a few punk-looking street kids, all wondering what the big deal was. In the middle of the crowd stood Henry, shopping bags hanging at his side. He felt as if he were waking from a long forgotten dream. A dream he’d once had as a little boy.

The old Seattle landmark was a place he’d visited twice in his lifetime. First when he was only twelve years old, way back in 1942—“the war years” he liked to call them. Even then the old bachelor hotel had stood as a gateway between Seattle’s Chinatown and Nihonmachi, Japantown. Two outposts of an old-world conflict—where Chinese and Japanese immigrants rarely spoke to one another, while their American-born children often played kick the can in the streets together. The hotel...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. Father-son relationships are a crucial theme in the novel. Talk about some of these relationships and how they are shaped by culture and time. For example, how is the relationship between Henry and his father different from that between Henry and Marty? What accounts for the differences?

  2. Why doesn't Henry's father want him to speak Cantonese at home? How does this square with his desire to send Henry back to China for school? Isn't he sending his son a mixed message?

  3. If you were Henry, would you be able to forgive your father? Does Henry's father deserve forgiveness?

  4. From the beginning of the novel, Henry wears the "I am Chinese" button given to him by his father. What is the significance of this button and its message, and...
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    BookBrowse Awards
    2009

Reviews

BookBrowse

An exceptionally well-written historical fiction novel with many complex themes intertwined throughout the narrative. Its multifaceted, well-paced plot is sure to put it at the top of many a book club's reading list, and it is likely to attract a wide audience. Highly recommended!   (Reviewed by Kim Kovacs).

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Media Reviews
Author Blurb Lisa See, author of Snow Flower and the Secret Fan.
Jamie Ford's first novel explores the age-old conflicts between father and son, the beauty and sadness of what happened to Japanese Americans in the Seattle area during World War II, and the depths and longing of deep-heart love. An impressive, bitter, and sweet debut."

Publishers Weekly

The wartime persecution of Japanese immigrants is presented well, but the flatness of the narrative and Ford's reliance on numerous cultural clichés make for a disappointing read.

Kirkus Reviews

A timely debut that not only reminds readers of a shameful episode in American history, but cautions us to examine the present and take heed we don’t repeat those injustices.

Library Journal

[A] vivid picture of a confusing and critical time in American history. Recommended for all fiction collections.

School Library Journal (Adult Books for Teens)

While the novel is less perfect as literature than John Hamamura's Color of the Sea, the setting and quietly moving, romantic story are commendable.

Huntington News - David M. Kinchen

If you liked Snow Falling on Cedars, you'll enjoy reading Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet. I wouldn't be surprised if both Oprah and major Hollywood studios are in contact with Jamie Ford.

Blogcritics - Wisteria Leigh

Memorable characters throughout support Henry including Mrs. Beatty, the cafeteria person at his school, who has a hidden heart of gold and Sheldon the sage old sax player of Jazz. A beautiful endearing story — don’t miss this one.

Reader Reviews
Anon

Dreadfully Boring
I had to read this book for class and I got so tired. This story moves terribly slow. I could barely finish it because I would lose interest. The book was dull and lifeless. I would NEVER EVER recommend this story to ANYONE, even if i despised that ...   Read More

Lawrence L. Collier

I Am an American...No Matter What!
Most young people today would not understand the prejudice that happened as a result of W.W. II after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. But despite the evils of war, there are always heroes, there are always people falling in love and helping others ...   Read More

CarolK

Clash of Cultures
Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford creates a clash in my mind. What is an easy story to read, due to the author's flowing narrative style, contrasts with its underlying serious subject of a world in conflict. On the one hand, it ...   Read More

Valerie F.

Disappointing
I wanted to like this book, since the premise of it sounded interesting to me. Unfortunately, it was mostly fluff, with lots of unbelievable plot points, ridiculous coincidences, and characters who didn't feel real. Disappointing.

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Beyond the Book

Japanese-Americans in World War II
People of Japanese descent were the victims of racial prejudice from the time they first started to arrive in the USA, and USA-controlled Hawaii, in the mid to late 19th century to work as laborers.  By the early 1900s, some Japanese immigrants had started to lease land and sharecrop - California reacted by passing The Alien Land Law of 1913 which banned the purchase of land by Japanese.  A little over a decade later, the 1924 US Immigration Act banned immigration from Japan. 

By the start of World War II, anti-Japanese sentiment was high, particularly among the farming and fishing communities competing with the Japanese for both jobs and commerce. The panic and ...

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