Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Jamie Ford relives internment and its hideous consequences.

This novel about conflict in the Seattle Asian community during World War II received strong reviews. That was enough to get me to put it on the Kindle for my trip to England. It was great to have while traveling.

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet

Jamie Ford, himself an Asian-American writer living in Seattle, has constructed a compelling account of Asian life in Seattle during the internment years, 1942-1945. Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet (320 pages, Ballantine, $15) is set in two time periods. It tells the story of a young Chinese American, the son of immigrants, who came of age in Seattle during the 1940s. Henry Lee’s father is deeply political and his hatred of the Japanese, who had been at war with China well before WWII, is beyond discussion. Henry’s mother defers to her husband in these matters as well. Imagine their distress, then, when Henry falls for the young Keiko Okabe, a second generation Japanese American, when they first meet while working on the cafeteria line in their junior high.

Henry and Keiko become great friends, and as they bond over the jazz music that Henry loves, they also experience a sense of foreboding at the mood of the country as the war with Japan deepens. Henry dreads to tell his parents about Keiko; and when he does, his father does all but disown him. As Keiko and her (really delightful) family are sent off to internment, Henry is distraught, and he does everything but spirit her away, even as his father becomes more and more overbearing.

These scenes are interwoven with scenes of Henry in the mid 1980s. His wife Ethel has recently died, and he finds himself remembering Keiko and that time before interment. These memories are especially intense when Henry discovers, in the forty-five year old boxes that are uncovered in a long-boarded up hotel in the Japanese district, an old jazz record that he and Keiko had shared. The record brings back details of their young love, and the ways in which it involved a local black saxophone player whom Henry befriended.

As the scenes in the 1940s intensify, Keiko and her family are interned, first in a local campsite near Seattle and later in a new camp that they helped to build in Idaho. Henry visits Keiko, and they have some very touching scenes together, but eventually the war pulls them apart and they lose touch before it ends.
While writing his unrequited missives to Keiko, Henry meets another girl who helps him to overcome his sense of loss. Ethel is from another Chinese family, and Henry’s parents are delighted with his choice this time.

Meanwhile the Henry of the 1980s is confused about whether to tell his only son, Marty, about this earlier love affair. When Marty turns up with a great new girlfriend, Samantha, though, Henry gets up his nerve. Marty and Samantha encourage him in these memories and even urge him to seek out the woman he remembers.

Ford tells of the real pain of internment, even as he paints a portrait of what happened to Seattle during those years. He also makes us feel the painful regret and eventual hope that the hero experiences. It makes a wonderful story.

Jamie Ford

Available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.

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