Jamie Ford's "Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet" is a Seattle-set novel that comes at the Japanese internment-camp experience during World War II from an unexpected angle.
In 2002, debut novelist Julie Otsuka published “When the Emperor Was Divine,” a tale that in terse but eloquent fashion traced the fortunes of a Californian family of Japanese descent between 1942 and 1946, when they were “evacuated” to internment camps far from the West Coast, one of many such families deemed a wartime-security threat by the government of Franklin D. Roosevelt.
With a canny gift for compression and an intuitive feel for a child’s take on family disruptions, Otsuka neatly sidestepped any checklist predictability in the book. The result was a small masterpiece on a large and troubling subject. It made perfect sense when the Seattle Public Library chose “Emperor” as its “Seattle Reads” choice for 2005.
Jamie Ford’s first novel, “Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet” (Ballantine, 290 pp., $24), mines the same historical material. While it isn’t on par with “Emperor” as a literary accomplishment, it may be of even greater interest to Seattle readers.
It’s set here, for one thing — and it’s clear on every page how thoroughly Ford, who grew up here, did his research. The book also comes at the internment-camp issue from an unusual point of view — that of Chinese Americans who wanted to keep their distance from their Japanese-American counterparts, or even bore them animosity for the cruelties the invading Japanese were inflicting on China. Just as unexpected is the way Ford weaves Jackson Street jazz-scene lore into the book.
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Ford doesn’t have to go far to link these elements of 1940s Seattle together. They all play out within shouting distance of each other between the present-day Chinatown International District and the Seattle waterfront. But in whisking the reader off to Camp Harmony (the state fairgrounds at Puyallup that served as a temporary holding ground for Japanese-American internees) and Camp Minidoka in Idaho, he resorts to plot machinations that show some strain.
“Hotel” splits its action between the 1940s and 1980s, linking those two eras through the guarded memories of protagonist Henry Lee.
Henry, a widower in 1986, hasn’t told his only son, Marty, much about his past — and Marty has gone a bit awry in filling in the blanks. He believes Henry is as steeped in Chinese family tradition and ethnic loyalty as Henry’s own father was. But when a basement full of Japanese-American belongings is uncovered at Seattle’s Panama Hotel, a wartime-era Chinese-Japanese variation on “Romeo and Juliet” begins to emerge.
The hard divisions of 1940s neighborhood geography, in what we now blandly call the Chinatown International District, are caught with note-perfect accuracy in “Hotel,” as is the strangeness of seeing Nihonmachi (Japantown) forcibly abandoned.
The most potent image in the book — and the one that Ford says triggered the novel — is the “I am Chinese” button that Henry’s father forces him to wear in a town where most citizens can’t tell one Asian face or language from another.
With the period detail so revealing and so well rendered, it feels like carping to criticize the more technical nuts and bolts of the book. But Ford’s prose, while an easy read, can be a little clumsy at times. And the broad strokes with which he draws some of the story’s minor characters detracts from its plausibility in certain passages.
On a sadder and less critical note, I’m not sure Ford is aware that Bud’s Jazz Records — which provides a key ingredient to the 1980s portions of this tale — closed last year. His author’s note suggests not. But it’s given loving life in this book.
Michael Upchurch is the Seattle Times arts writer: email@example.com