A Bittersweet Coming of Age Story
Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, by Jamie Ford
This story opens in 1986 in Seattle with fifty-six-year-old Chinese American Henry Lee walking past the old Panama Hotel, where he sees that the new owners are bringing out some things they've discovered in the basement. Among them he sees a Japanese parasol that once belonged to a girl named Keiko, someone he cared very deeply about. These are things Japanese families had to leave behind when they were taken away to America's concentration camps forty years earlier, during the Second World War.
Henry has been searching for a very rare and long out of print jazz record that a friend had recorded back in Nineteen and Forty-Two, when Henry was twelve years old. These things are from another time, but it's a time Henry has not forgotten.
In 1942 Henry was the only Chinese student in an all white school. The kids tormented him, because he looked Japanese and we were at war. His father, a man who loathed everything Japanese, made a button for Henry that said, "I am Chinese." It was embarrassing. He was bullied at school. The first day they stole his lunch, so everyday thereafter he gave his lunch to a street playing black jazz saxophonist, named Sheldon. A man he'd be friends with forever.
Henry works at in the school cafeteria, serving the white kids. One day a new person, Keiko Okabe, is there working with him. She's Japanese and a new student in the school. They form an instant friendship. They're only twelve, but they know the hazards their friendship can cause, still they risk it.
Henry introduces Keiko to Sheldon and one day they go to an alley outside a club where Sheldon is playing with Jazzman Oscar Holden. Holden sees them, invites them in and dedicates a song to them, which he later records. This is the record Henry spends four decades looking for, the record he hopes is in that basement, for it is their song, his and Keiko's.
Keiko bought him the record, but he couldn't take it home, because in addition to hating the Japanese, Henry's father hates Jazz. He's a stern guy, Henry's father. So when Keiko and her family are taken to a camp, for their own protection, the record, along with Keiko, is lost to Henry. He is able to visit her and he gets his first kiss and they promise to write and he promises to wait. But he's only thirteen now and when her letters stop coming, he moves on, meets a postal worker named Ethel, who is Chinese, much to his father's delight. And they marry.
Forty years later, six months before Henry sees Keiko's parasol at the Panama Hotel, Ethel dies of lung cancer. Can Henry make things right? Can he fix his life? Is that record in that basement? Can he find Keiko again? Should he? These are all questions that kept me turning the pages of this bittersweet coming of age story. Young love, it's the finest thing there is.
Book Review by Vesta Irene