Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet: A Novel by Jamie Ford
The Panama Hotel, once the gateway to Seattle’s Japantown, is the hotel at the corner of bitter and sweet. In 1986, Henry Lee hears that the belongings of 37 Japanese families interned during WWII are found in the basement of the Panama Hotel. This event sends Henry, a Chinese-American, on a journey back to the 1940s when his best friends were a Japanese-American named Keiko Okabe and a local Jazz musician named Sheldon. Henry was 12 years old and was struggling with his relationship with his father, his feelings for Keiko and the events taking place in wartime Seattle.
From the Hardcover Edition
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. Continue Reading
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.
Book Club Party Ideas for Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet
I purchased oriental lilies and displayed them in an Asian vase. Star fire lilies were Ethel’s favorite flower but I was unable to find them at my local florist. I also purchased a parasol. Henry saw a crowd of reporters and onlookers gathering in front of the Panama Hotel. The owner opened a parasol on the front steps of the hotel when announcing that the belongings of 37 Japanese families were found in the basement, “a time capsule from the war years”. The items had been untouched for 40 years and “Henry wondered if his own broken heart might be found in there hidden among the unclaimed possessions of another time, boarded up in the basement of a condemned hotel, lost but never forgotten”.
One special thing I wanted to do was to have an envelope for each book club member with a peppermint and a quarter inside. At Ethel’s funeral, the guests were provided with an envelope with the symbol for Lee imprinted on it. In this envelope was a peppermint so the guests would leave with the taste of sweetness not bitterness. There was also a quarter inside for the guests to purchase more candy on the way home. According to the novel, this is a “traditional token of everlasting life and enduring happiness”. Henry was unable to spend his quarter, he kept it in his pocket as a promise of something better to come.
Jazz music brought Henry comfort. He liked to go to Bud’s Jazz Records and look for a vinyl recording of Oscar Holden who was one of the earliest of Seattle’s influential jazz musicians. Though I could not buy a CD of Oscar Holden, I found one by Dave Holden, who is Oscar’s son, titled Roots to Roots and Beyond. Seattle on the Puget Sound, which is a song on this CD, can be purchased as an MP3 download. This song was written originally by Oscar Holden and is updated by Dave Holden.
Book Club Menu for Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet
For my appetizers, I made Shrimp Toast and Fresh Spring Rolls. These are common dim sum items that Henry and Marty probably ate when they met for lunch. I served these with a Peanut Sauce and a Hot and Spicy Sweet and Sour Sauce.
Mango Pudding with Mint was served for dessert.
Book Club Resources
Ratings at the time this post was published
|Goodreads: 3.9 stars (16,293 reviews)|
|Amazon: 4 stars (442 reviews)|
|Barnes & Noble: 4 stars (924 reviews)|
|My Rating: 4 stars|
Purchase Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet at your favorite bookseller
Here is Jamie Ford talking about the Panama Hotel and what is was like for the Japanese Americans in wartime Seattle.
Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet has won the following awards:
2010 Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature
2009 Montana Book Award
2009 Borders Original Voices Selection
2009 Director’s Mention, Langum Prize for American Historical Fiction
2009 BookBrowse Favorite Book Award Runner Up
Learn more about Seattle Jazz
Jackson Street After Hours – The Roots of Jazz in Seattle written by Paul DeBarros
Visit The Seattle Jazz Scene
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