Jamie Ford. Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet. NY: Ballentine, 2009
I count Jamie Ford as an Internet acquaintance and wasn’t disappointed when I bought his Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet as soon as it was published. I was emotionally satisfied with this debut novel, but impulsively wanted to tag it. So many hot buttons—all of interest to me—popped up: Asian-Americans, coming of age, 1940s jazz, Seattle, World War II, racism and parental conflict. I was biased in the book’s favor by feeling an immediate connection to these tags by having grown up in the Northwest during post-Pearl Harbor tensions.
The story of a widower reflecting on his youth and lost love is a traditional trope, but setting the locations in the city’s ethnically separated streets and an internment camp added dynamic tension to the plot. It was further enriched by the bond that a lost jazz recording has between Chinese Henry Lee and Japanese Keiko Okabe. Ford alternates events and plot developments during 1942 and 1986, providing a literary parallelism that leads the reader ineluctably to an ending in which all the questions are answered. Ford’s language is simple, straightforward and strong, although 13-year-old Henry’s voice sounded anachronistically adult.
A few minor characters might, I hope, lead Jamie Ford to write a sequel surrounding the white high school cook (who secretly supports young Henry’s forbidden infatuation) and Sheldon (the black street corner musician who’s a foil to Henry’s quests). Even old Henry’s son Marty and his Caucasian fiancée, Samantha, are a story worthy of an Amy Tan novel. More fiction—and Ford’s diligent research—needs to be published to examine this period, its strained ethnic relations and what it means to be an American.
Happily, friends tell me, Hotel is earning sales in the U.K. and Australia, although there it’s tagged as “American history.”
Walt Giersbach '61
Available (actually checked out or on hold at most locations!) at Des Moines, Ames, and Marshalltown Public Libraries in Iowa, Delaware County Public Library System (PA) and Central Parkway of the Free Library of Philadelphia.