My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I read a lot of fiction about WWII, but I rarely get the chance to read stories about how things were for American civilians during the war, compared to the European theatre and the Pacific-Asia area. I believe the last one I read dealing with American civilians was the YA novel, Under The Blood Red Sun, when I was 14. Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet was a gift from a friend of mine, since she knew I was studying Japanese and thought I would find it interesting. It was a timely gift, for soon after, I was invited to do some historical coverage of a local internment camp in my college town, which was used for Ukrainians in WWI, and Japanese in WWII. I love those moments of serendipitous literature.
The novel, like many others written recently (Water for Elephants for example) has a fluid structure of time, going back and forth between the 1940s and the present (Well, 1980s about) in Seattle, chronicling the life of Henry Lee, who was a young Chinese boy at a school that was about 98% white, with him and a young Japanese girl named Keiko being the exceptions. They’re treated the way one would expect, with buck-toothed slant-eyed faces pulled at them, named called, and Henry being forced by his father to wear an “I am Chinese” pin on his jacket in light of increasing anti-Japanese sentiment. The present meanwhile, deals with some hidden treasures at the Panama hotel, a crumbling landmark that merged Chinatown and Nihonmachi (Japantown) and housed some treasures of the families interned. The past and the present begin to intersect with this discovery, and they lead the older Henry to reminisce and track down that which he lost in the war.
As someone who grew up in Hawaii, I am familiar with the story of the Japanese internment. I even had neighbours who were interned. So this was nothing new to me in terms of historical content, though I have read precious few fiction on the subject. What makes Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet unique though, is the perspective it takes, the characters, and the structure of the novel which shows that after the war, people’s lives did carry on. Using Henry as narrators gives a unique insight, since he is not interned himself, but is personally impacted by the racism and anti-Japanese sentiment of the era, and makes every effort to soften the blow for Keiko and her family. Henry, Keiko, and the other characters, from the friendly jazz man to the lunch lady who helps in her own way, there are lots of surprises and defied stereotypes throughout, making a thoroughly enjoyable read.
It’s not the best book about WWII ever, but I am glad it was written. I must seek out more fiction on the internment.