Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet

By Jamie Ford

The Short Take:

This book is both heart-warming and heart-breaking. Built around the complex relationship between a Chinese American boy and a Japanese America girl at the start of WWII, how could it be anything else? I loved it.


I don’t know it the critics considered this book to be great literature, but it is surely great story telling, with wonderful characters and powerful images. Normally I wouldn’t write about a book that came out over a year ago, but when it came to this one — I just couldn’t resist.

There were times when the story crushed me: the interment of the Japanese, rampant racism, man’s inhumanity to man. But I was just as often lifted up by the truly honorable character of Henry Lee, the Chinese boy who befriends a Japanese girl despite his family… and pretty much the rest of America.

The book follows Henry as a 12-year-old as well as in his 50s, alternating between the time spans. Through both eras Henry struggles with conflicted feelings about his family, his friends, and the gap between what he feels is the right thing to do and the honorable thing to do.

You feel that struggle right along with Henry. It’s this engagement that makes this such a wonderfully bittersweet read.

A Little Plot:

Alone in his 50s, Henry misses his deceased wife and finds it hard to communicate with his only son. Plus, he has carried a secret  since the early days of WWII, about a relationship that should not have happened but that he cannot forget.

Back then, Henry’s father hated the Japanese for attacking his beloved homeland. At the same time, he wanted his son to become thoroughly American, forbidding him to speak Mandarin at home and sending him to a “American” where Henry is alternately isolated and bullied for being different.

When Japanese American Keiko also enters the school, Henry finds a friend — but she is a friend his father would abhor. And, after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, so do countless others. Henry tries to stay true to his friend and his family, but it becomes exceedingly difficult.

Henry gives up nothing without a struggle. And it was a struggle for me to put down this book and do anything else until I had read right to the end.

For more about Jamie Ford and this book, click here.

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