Lately, I seem to be reading an abundance of historical based fiction and/or stories that bounce between the past and the present. Most of these have left me a bit cold – Sarah’s Key and The Forgotten Garden come to mind. When I picked up The Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet I expected more of the same and was prepared to be disappointed. Instead, it turned out to be an enjoyable book.
Part of the story takes place during the Second World War when a Chinese-American boy, befriends a Japanese-American girl. They both attended a predominately white school in Seattle on scholarships, where they bonded over their mutual isolation and kitchen duty.
After the bombing of Pearl Harbour, anyone of Japanese descent became persona non grata, especially along the west coast. Despite being an American citizen and born in the United States, the girl and her family, along with their neighbours, were rounded up and interned for the remainder of the war. Many of their communities would disappear forever. Meanwhile, the two friends fought to keep their friendship and budding romance alive, although distance and bigotry was working against them.
The other thread of the story is about the boy, many years later, recently widowed, with a son about to graduate college. A hotel, in what had formerly been Japantown, had been boarded up for years and was undergoing restoration. The hotel made the local news when the belongings of displaced Japanese families which had been sealed in the building’s basement for decades, were discovered by the new owner. Seeing these items brought to the surface also brought with them a flood of memories for the now middle aged man.
The story itself was simple but the circumstances under which the story was told was anything but. The novel brought to life an ugly time in both American and Canadian history. The internment of the Japanese, stripping them of their rights and freedoms, seems so contradictory of everything we stand for here, and yet it was mandated by both countries. Even more disconcerting, is the fact that over three quarters of those held captive during that time were either born here or citizens. It’s a scary thought and one to keep in mind these days when we think about what is happening globally in relation to our own immigrant communities.
Grim historical facts aside, the novel was actually heartwarming, even corny at times. It was also unabashedly predictable. Still, it was a really lovely story.