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. (Random House)
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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 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.
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Discussion Questions from the Random House
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 how has Henry’s understanding of that message changed by the end of the novel?
5. Why does Henry provide an inaccurate translation when he serves as the go-between in the business negotiations between his father and Mr. Preston? Is he wrong to betray his father’s trust in this way?
6. The US has been called a nation of immigrants. In what ways do the families of Keiko and Henry illustrate different aspects of the American immigrant experience?
7. What is the bond between Henry and Sheldon, and how is it strengthened by jazz music?
8. If a novel could have a soundtrack, this one would be jazz. What is it about this indigenous form of American music that makes it an especially appropriate choice?
9. Henry’s mother comes from a culture in which wives are subservient to their husbands. Given this background, do you think she could have done more to help Henry in his struggles against his father? Is her loyalty to her husband a betrayal of her son?
10. Compare Marty’s relationship with Samantha to Henry’s relationship with Keiko. What other examples can you find in the novel of love that is forbidden or that crosses boundaries of one kind or another?
11. What struggles did your own ancestors have as immigrants to America, and to what extent did they incorporate aspects of their cultural heritage into their new identities as Americans?
12. Does Henry give up on Keiko too easily? What else could he have done to find her?
13. What about Keiko? Why didn’t she make more of an effort to see Henry once she was released from the camp?
14. Do you think Ethel might have known what was happening with Henry’s letters?
15. The novel ends with Henry and Keiko meeting again after more than forty years. Jump ahead a year and imagine what has happened to them in that time. Is there any evidence in the novel for this outcome?
16. What sacrifices do the characters in the novel make in pursuit of their dreams for themselves and for others? Do you think any characters sacrifice too much, or for the wrong reasons? Consider the sacrifices Mr. Okabe makes, for example, and those of Mr. Lee. Both fathers are acting for the sake of their children, yet the results are quite different. Why?
17. Was the US government right or wrong to “relocate” Japanese-Americans and other citizens and residents who had emigrated from countries the US was fighting in WWII? Was some kind of action necessary following Pearl Harbor? Could the government have done more to safeguard civil rights while protecting national security?
18. Should the men and women of Japanese ancestry rounded up by the US during the war have protested more actively against the loss of their property and liberty? Remember that most were eager to demonstrate their loyalty to the US. What would you have done in their place? What’s to prevent something like this from ever happening again?
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
|Visit The Seattle Jazz Scene
Jackson Street After Hours – The Roots of Jazz in Seattle written by Paul DeBarros
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