Here is the publisher's summary to put us all on the same page:
In the opening pages of Jamie Ford’s stunning debut novel, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, Henry Lee comes upon a crowd gathered outside the Panama Hotel, once the gateway to Seattle’s Japantown. It has been boarded up for decades, but now the new owner has made an incredible discovery: the belongings of Japanese families, left when they were rounded up and sent to internment camps during World War II. As Henry looks on, the owner opens a Japanese parasol.
This simple act takes old Henry Lee back to the 1940s, at the height of the war, when young Henry’s world is a jumble of confusion and excitement, and to his father, who is obsessed with the war in China and having Henry grow up American. While “scholarshipping” at the exclusive Rainier Elementary, where the white kids ignore him, Henry meets Keiko Okabe, a young Japanese American student. Amid the chaos of blackouts, curfews, and FBI raids, Henry and Keiko forge a bond of friendship–and innocent love–that transcends the long-standing prejudices of their Old World ancestors. And after Keiko and her family are swept up in the evacuations to the internment camps, she and Henry are left only with the hope that the war will end, and that their promise to each other will be kept.Now the discussion:
- We began with taking a vote of liked, disliked, and so-so. We had 14 likes, 2 so-so, and 0 disliked. The so-sos agreed that they loved thinking about the book, but Henry point of view made for sparse, non-lyrical language. It worked, but they prefer more flowery language. The vast majority of the group however liked the book, had quite a bit to say about why as you will see.
- We talked about the internment camp issue for awhile. Comments included how enlightening it was to learn more about this troubling time in our history. We talked about how easily the Japanese went to the camps. At one point there were 10,000 in a camp; they could have easily over powered the guards, but since they desperately wanted to prove their allegiance to America and some even felt guilty about what Japan was doing they just wanted to comply. One woman shared how when she watched the newsreels of the Japanese evacuations as a child, she was under the impression that this was all done to protect them; she continued to think that until recently. As you can see just talking about the internment angle was a rich discussion point. I ended this part of the discussion by mentioning that maybe the fact that we don't know as much about this part of our history is a large reason why this book is so popular with book clubs.
- This novel has an interesting style. We get Henry's perspective at two distinct times in history, 1942 as a 13 year old, and 1986 as a recent widower. But the author chooses to have Henry speak in each time frame from that time frame. Henry of 1986 is not looking back at 1942. When we are in the 1942 chapters, Henry is a child. Overall the group really liked this narrative style. They called it rich and unique. They also felt that it helped to increase their enjoyment of the great secondary characters here. People especially liked Mrs Beatty and Sheldon. Seeing Sheldon through young and old Henry was mentioned as particularly enjoyable.
- This also led to a discussion of what a wonderful "voice" Henry has. Ford has created a clear and strong voice for Henry. He is very controlled, calm, and honorable throughout. Some were frustrated that he is not more exciting or flowery, but as I said to those people, if Ford had started having Henry speak in metaphors, we would all be complaining how out of character it was. The novel is plainly written, but Henry is plainly spoken. It all adds to the strength of his character. We appreciated this consistency as readers.
- Sheldon came up again. We saw him as the novel's catalyst. We discussed how he made Henry visit Keiko in the internment camp, how he gave Henry the last record to give to Keiko and how his death brought Keiko and Henry back together after 40 years. He also gives the reader a touchstone of a more familiar kind of racial injustice. Sheldon mentions discrimination of African Americans in passing, but in this novel we are involved in the discrimination against the Japanese and Chinese and the fighting between the Japanese and Chinese against each other. This is new to most readers, but with Sheldon commenting from the more familiar (to the reader) point of view of the African America struggle, we all see the bigger picture. Sheldon was also there to show how Jazz, one of America's indigenous musical forms, unified Americans across race and served as a minority voice. As you can see, we liked Sheldon.
- We then moved on to a discussion of the differences in the generations as we move from the immigrant to the American. We used Henry, his Dad, and his son Marty as our examples. This then led to people generously sharing their personal family immigrant stories. That is another line of discussion which this novel easily invites.
- Of course we discussed Henry and Keiko's relationship as children. Someone said they did love each other, but more like best friends. This led to use asking if Henry gave up on Keiko too easily. We were mixed saying yes and no. People were good about sharing their personal arguments on both sides. In end we agreed whether or not we thought he gave up too easily, we would have ultimately been dissatisfied with the novel if Henry had ditched Ethel for Keiko because Henry was noting if not honorable. He always made the honorable choice, no matter the personal sacrifice that choice entailed. This also led to a side discussion of the other sacrifices made by characters in the novel.
- Henry's son Marty's relationship with his white fiancee, Samantha was also discussed. As one lady put it, to Henry, Samantha is a ray of sunshine that opened up Harry and warmed the air between Marty and Henry. Samantha is Marty's Keiko, noted another participant.
- The ending was discussed at length. SPOILER ALERT At the end, Henry shows up at Keiko's apartment and they begin talking to one and other. I asked people to vote if this last scene meant they would start up a deeper relationship again or if he would spend some time with her and then go home, keep up a correspondence, but not go much deeper. I was surprised that 12 or the 16 voted for a deeper relationship. I used textual clues, such as Henry not being able to mend the broken record and his comments about how some things can never be fixed, along with the closing lines of the book which remark how they were standing again as if on opposite sides of the fence to argue that there would always be an insurmountable wall between them. But someone else said that the overall theme of the book is that broken relationships can be healed. We went back and forth and agreed to disagree. However, it is important to point out that Ford does have evidence in the novel on both sides of this issue which again, makes for a great discussion point and may be another clue as to why this book has been such a hit for book groups.
- We talked a bit about the title. The hotel is the only place where the pre-internment Japanese experience was preserved. It is also the site of Henry's "last stand" for Keiko and against his father. And the story is what happens between the bitter part of the story and the sweet part.
- Finally, we ended as usual with words or phrases to describe the book:
- repeatable history
- racial issues
- it could happen again
When I was reading this novel, I kept thinking that the Pacific Northwest setting and Young Henry's struggle being not Chinese enough for the Chinese kids and not American enough for the American kids was similar to Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True History of a Part-Time Indian, which has a modern setting but tackles the same issues in the Native American community.
For other suggests, NoveList listed Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh, The Help by Katherine Stockett, and A Gesture Life by Chang-rae Lee which all look at cross racial relationships. And for nonfiction I like the choice of suggesting Brother, I'm Dying by Edwidge Danticat which is the author's memoir of her family's immigration to the US from Haiti.