A discovery in the abandoned Panama Hotel in Seattle sparks the memories of Henry Lee, a man who recently lost his wife to cancer. She is not his first love though. The hotel hid the possessions of Japanese Americans sent to interment camps during World War II, including the belonging of a beautiful girl named Keiko.
Henry, a Chinese American, and Keiko were the only children of Asian descent at the distinguished Rainer Elementary School. The twelve year olds were bullied mercilessly by an older boy, Chaz Preston. Finding that there's safety in numbers, Henry and Keiko stick close together to avoid getting beaten up. At first, Henry is hesitant to become friends with Keiko. His father hates the Japanese with a passion and teaches Henry to see them as the enemy. Henry soon learns that Keiko is as American as apple pie and even loves jazz as much as he does.
As the war progresses, Henry and Keiko's friendship grows until she and her family are taken away. Henry defies his father and with the help of the lunch lady, Mrs Beatty, gets a job as a cook at the camp where Keiko is interred. Time is running out for this budding romance as Keiko's family is to be moved to a more permanent location far from Henry. They make a promise to be together no matter how long it takes, but due to time and circumstances, it never happens.
Henry goes on to have a happy life with his wife Ethel and their son Marty, until her death. His relationship with his son becomes strained while his wife was ill and he is shocked to learn that his son sees him as a man much like his own father. If he only knew, why the old jazz album hidden in the basement of the Panama Hotel is so important to Henry.
I had my ups and downs with Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford. It was a bit like learning to drive stick. A smooth start, a jerk and a stall, and then you get the hang of it. Just when I got into it, I lost interest only to find it again later. I'm not sure if it was the jump from the 40's to the 80's or more about style of the writing. I also wondered about Henry and Keiko's age. At 12, I had no interest in boys so I can't image falling madly in love enough to make promises of devotion. I wonder why Ford chose that particular age. I'm sure he has his reasons.
The story itself is quite interesting once I got past those issues. Hotel takes a personal look at what the Japanese Americans went through during the war. Image having your home taken from you, having to either hide or sell all your possessions, having to prove your patriotism over and over again, and leave your life behind not knowing if you'd ever be back again, just because of your ancestry. Although Henry is fictional, the Panama Hotel is not. It is a physical reminder of the suffering of these families during a terrible period of history.
I liked quite a few of the characters especially Sheldon the sax player and Mrs Beatty (she was a surprise). They had a depth to them. Keiko was a darling. I liked older Henry more than younger Henry. I guess he aged well. I also thought the story ended right where it should. Very nice.
Despite a few iffy spots, I recommend Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet.
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