By Clover Carroll
The best historical novels—perhaps the best novels, period—illuminate as well as entertain. The May selection of the Crozet Library Book Group (meeting Monday, May 5, at 7:30), Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford, skillfully does both. This heartfelt novel sets a story of first love—with all its joy, tenderness, and loss—against the backdrop of one of the most shameful periods in American history. Rich with romance, family conflict, and cultural detail, this is a read that will stick with you long after you close the book’s covers.
1986: Henry Lee, a retired resident of Seattle’s Chinatown who is still grieving the loss of his wife to cancer, notices many people removing old Japanese artifacts from the basement of the Panama Hotel, an actual place in Seattle’s International District that stands as the gateway to the historic Nihonmachi neighborhood, or Japantown. The Panama still serves traditional Japanese tea and contains the last remaining sento, or Japanese bath, in the U.S. This moment opens the floodgates of Henry’s memories of his adolescence in 1942, just after the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the U.S. declaration of war on Japan. In alternating sections, the book deftly interweaves these two time periods in Henry’s life to dramatic effect, keeping us wondering right up to the end what caused Henry’s separation from the love of his life, and what, if anything, can be done to pick up the pieces this late in his life.
As the American populace comes to mistrust all Japanese—even those who were born in America—as spies and saboteurs, Henry’s father makes him wear an “I Am Chinese” button as a badge of protection—a button which author Ford’s father actually wore. At the white private school where Henry is “scholarshipping,” it has nearly the opposite effect; “why not just put a sign on my back that says ‘kick me’ while you’re at it?” Henry wonders. Bullied mercilessly and made to serve food to the white students at lunchtime, Henry is also outcast by his former friends at the Chinese school, who call him “Caspar”—a white ghost. His only friend is a young black saxophonist named Sheldon, a member of Seattle’s flourishing jazz scene, who gets his first gig playing at the Black Elks Club with the only non-fictional character in the book, jazz pianist Oscar Holden (1887-1969), often called the patriarch of Seattle jazz.
Sheldon is his only friend, that is, until Henry meets Keiko Okabe, a Japanese student at his school who is also assigned to help in the lunch line. As their friendship blossoms into first love, Henry and Keiko share a love of jazz, her love of drawing, and mutual protection from the racist bullying they endure at the white school. Sadly, Henry has to hide his new friendship from his nationalist Chinese father, who hates all Japanese because of their country’s invasions into China. But in February, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt calmed American war hysteria by issuing an executive order authorizing the creation of “military areas” from which “any or all persons may be excluded.” This power was used to declare that all people of Japanese ancestry were excluded from the entire Pacific coast, except for those in “War Relocation Camps” located in various parts of the interior such as Colorado and Idaho. More than 110,000 people of Japanese heritage, 62 percent of them American citizens, were evacuated en masse to these internment camps to live in cramped barracks covered with tar paper, several families housed together with no privacy and communal facilities. They were given only a few days to pack and were allowed to take with them only what they could carry. They stored the many valuables they had to leave behind in churches and other public buildings; in Seattle, the basement of the Panama Hotel. Plans to retrieve them when they came back were forgotten after four long years of internment; hundreds of items in the Panama were rediscovered decades later, and many of them remain to this day. Gerald Ford finally issued a formal apology for this national disgrace in 1976, and Congress paid reparations in 1988.
As Henry watches helplessly, huge bonfires are lit in the alleys of Nihonmachi, onto which his Japanese neighbors throw any photos or documents that might link them with the homeland. After the evacuation order, he finds Keiko in the chaos of loading thousands of Japanese onto busses, and tries to give her his “I Am Chinese” button. The Okabes are taken first to Washington state and eventually to Camp Minidoka in Idaho. In an act of first manhood and defiance of his parents, Henry travels by bus to visit Keiko and tell her how he really feels. Ford’s descriptions make the conditions of the camps, with their barbed wire fences, armed guards, and desolate spaces, a vivid reality. Henry and Keiko try to stay in touch by writing letters, but over four long years all manner of things can and do happen to complicate what had seemed so simple. Now (in 1986), Henry visits the Panama Hotel himself, sorting through hundreds of boxes of other people’s intimate treasures, looking for any memento of Keiko, especially the Oscar Holden record they had bought together. As his memories intertwine with his awakening awareness that he has never stopped loving her, the poignancy becomes palpable.
This novel deals affectingly with a universal theme. How many of us had our first loves wrested from us by circumstance, and still long to find them on the lost banks of the river of time? As with all separation stories, we can’t help but second-guess the characters’ decisions and wonder why they let love slip away.
Not every turn of events is believable, and some discoveries seem too easy and predictable. But overall this enlightening novel is deeply touching, with a satisfying ending that resolves our questions. It opened my eyes to a devastating period in our history that I knew little about. I’ll let you decide whether the story is ultimately more bitter or more sweet—or whether, as in life itself, they work in tandem to intensify one another.