Sunday, January 2, 2011
Jamie Ford, HOTEL AT THE CORNER OF BITTER AND SWEET
God knows this is a powerful topic: the camps into which Japanese Americans in Seattle (and other areas) were thrown in the early 1940s. Plotwise, this is a love story about a Chinese twelve-year-old boy (Henry) who meets and falls in love with a Japanese girl (Keiko), partly because they are the only two scholarship kids, working in the kitchen, at their school in 1942. Years later, in 1986, he sees the Panama Hotel being excavated ... and realizes that this is where many Japanese stowed their personal valuables and treasures that they could not bring with them into the camps. The most painful and touching moments for me were between Henry and his miserable, angry father, who lives half his mental life back in China, fighting with Chiang Kai-Shek against the Japanese. When Henry becomes friends with Keiko, and visits her in the camp, his father disowns him; even on his deathbed, his father doesn't forgive him, and instead confesses to keeping Keiko's letters from ever reaching Henry--"I did it for you". But I found Henry's dialogues with his son Marty awkward ... at times Henry sounds like he can barely speak English -- "My son is graduating soma como lode" (p. 38). But at others, Henry speaks with absolute fluency--because his parents refused to let him speak any Chinese from the time he was 12. Sometimes, the 12-year-olds seem precocious ... Keiko says, "Henry, this isn't about us. I mean it is, but they don't define you by the button you wear. They define you by what you do, by what your actions say about you ... They see you as a person." And I'm not sure the phrase "street cred" was around in 1986. Maybe? But it's a touching story, and while it's focalized through Henry, the third-person narrator lends an eerie distance that keeps me a bit uneasy through the whole book ... reminded me that I cannot know this experience, not really; there are some people who knew it firsthand. I can only ever be at a distance.