” Until he was twelve, he had been forbidden to speak English in his own home. His father had wanted him to grow up Chinese, the way he had done. Now everything was upside down. Yet the cadence of the words seemed to have more in common with that of the fisherman who came over from China than with the English Keiko and her family spoke so fluently. ” (122)
This is a heartfelt, sentimental novel that portrays two children separated during the internment of Japanese-Americans in World War Two. In 1940s Seattle, ethnicities do not mingle. Henry Lee, American born, is a 12-year-old son of Chinese immigrants. He meets his true love, Keiko Okabe, at the all-white elite school, which his staunchly nationalistic father enrolls him in. Despite the Sino-Japanese conflict, Henry and Keiko, the only Asian kids in school, are like a pair of gloves. Friendly at the mercy of schoolyard bullies, Henry quickly forges a forbidden bond to the nisei Keiko, who speaks no Japanese.
His father hated the Japanese. Not because they sank the USS Arizona—he hated them because they’d been bombing Chongqing, nonstop, for the last four years. (14)
Undoubtedly, Keiko lies at the heart of Henry’s subsequent struggles, with his Chinese-patriotic father, his racist classmates, and his suspicious and xenophobic country. Whereas there’s a war going against the innocent Japanese-Americans, there’s a silent war going on at home. Henry’s father stops speaking to him upon the discovery of possessions of Keiko’s family hidden in the drawer. As Keiko’s family is rounded up for relocation, the relationship between Henry and Keiko ends abruptly.
The novel alternates between 1986, just after the death of Henry’s wife, and the 1940s, just before Japantown is shut down. A chance discovery of items left behind by the Japanese in the basement of Panama Hotel i Seattle provokes Henry to share this story of Keiko with his son. The 12-year-old boy in the flashbacks is one without a bone of rebellion, but slowly transformed, as he learns to stand up for what he believes. He also scrapes an acquaintance with a black jazz musician, Sheldon, who becomes his moral support in reaching Keiko’s family at the camp.
The beauty of this book is the evocation of rich period details on the eves of war. Like Henry and Keiko, Sheldon is also socially marginalized, being a black man who lives from hand to mouth by perform on the street. These relationships and episodes of racial discrimination keep the pages turning. The only downside is that Henry’s voice always sounds like that of a grown man, not apropos of a child, even a precocious child who is caught in a time of historical strife.
300 pp. Ballantine Books. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]
Filed under: American Literature, Books, Contemporary Literature, General Fiction, Literature Tagged: | American Literature, Books, General Fiction, Historical Fiction, Hotel On the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, Jamie Ford, Literature, World War Two