In the opening scene of Jamie Ford’s debut, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, 50-something Henry Lee watches as a crowd gathers around the Panama Hotel. The new owner of the long-abandoned building has discovered something in the basement: the belongings of 37 Japanese families, items left behind decades ago when their owners were rounded up for internment camps during World War II.
There’s a delicious sense of mystery about this scene. What will we find in the dusty memorabilia? Will its secrets be beautiful or tragic—or both? Henry is curious too, and he begins to remember his preteen years during the war and a girl named Keiko. In flashbacks, Ford tells us their story.
The only two students of Asian descent at their school, Chinese-American Henry and Japanese-American Keiko quickly strike up a friendship. But soon it becomes clear that their friendship is much deeper than schoolyard camaraderie. Their feelings for each other are simple, but their love story is complicated: by war, and by Henry’s father’s ill regard for the Japanese. When Keiko’s family is sent to an internment camp, time and tragedy separate her from Henry. Ford aims to portray the Japanese-American internment with solid historicity, choosing to focus on how the events affected the course of real people’s lives. And he succeeds. The book’s historical elements are sturdy, but they’re very gently threaded into the novel. It’s mostly just a good story, one about families and first loves and identity and loyalty.
Ford, of Chinese descent, is the kind of down-to-earth writer you’d like to have a cup of coffee with. His full-length fiction debut might make you fall in love with Seattle—or at least start digging up your own city’s wartime history and possible jazz roots. It will make you want to call your oldest relatives and ask how they met their spouses. More than anything, though, it will make you linger on the final pages, sure that even the bitterest memories and the most painful regret can yield something sweet.
Jessica Inman writes from Tulsa, Oklahoma.