Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, by Jamie Ford (Ballantine, 2009) was excellent, memorable, and gently moving. Set in Seattle, it's actually two stories: one set in 1986, and one in during World War II. They're connected by the main character, Henry Lee, who's a pre-teen boy in the 1940s, and a widower in his 50s in the more recent chapters. Like Helen Ames in Home Safe, Henry has just lost his spouse of many years, but unlike Helen's, his loss was a long time coming.
"He missed his wife, Ethel. She'd been gone six months now. But he didn't miss her as much as you'd think, as bad as that might sound. It was more like quiet relief really. Her health had been bad -- no, worse than bad. The cancer in her bones had been downright crippling, to both of us, he thought.In his bereaved first-chapter wanderings, he encounters a to-do at the Panama Hotel, a long-defunct local landmark. It seems a new owner has just purchased the hotel, and as she explains to news crews and onlookers, "in the basement she had discovered the belongings of thirty-seven Japanese families who she presumed had been persecuted and taken away. Their belongings had been hidden and never recovered -- a time capsule from the war years."
"For the last seven years Henry had fed her, bathed her, helped her to the bathroom when she needed to go, and back again when she was all through. He took care of her night and day, 24/7 as they say these days. Marty, his son, thought his mother should have been put in a home, but Henry would have none of it. 'Not in my lifetime,' Henry said, resisting. ... He'd been raised to care for loved ones, personally, and to put someone in a home was unacceptable. What his son, Marty, never fully understood was that deep down there was an Ethel-shaped hold in Henry's life, and without her, all he felt was the draft of loneliness, cold and sharp, the years slipping away like blood from a wound that never heals."
This discovery, and the bamboo parasol the new owner opens to illustrate her find, takes Henry back to his own childhood, when the Panama Hotel stood on the boundary between Chinatown and the Japanese neighborhood of Nihonmachi. His vehemently nationalist father, eager to distinguish his son from China's and the U.S.'s shared Japanese enemies, makes him wear a pin on his school shirt that proclaims "I Am Chinese," but the distinction is lost on his peers. The neighborhood kids call him baak gwai ("white devil") because he attends an all-white school, while his schoolmates call him Tojo, Jap, and yellow.
Henry is further set apart by having to work in the cafeteria at lunchtime -- a requirement for his scholarship. This isn't all bad, though, as it's how he meets his two closest friends: Sheldon, a black streetcorner sax player who happily accepts Henry's brown-bagged lunch (Mrs. Beatty, the lunch lady, lets him eat cafeteria leftovers), and Keiko, a sansei Japanese-American whose insistence that she's American first goes over about as well with the Rainier Elementary bullies as does Henry's "I Am Chinese" button. Henry and Keiko gradually become friends, although he's careful to keep this fact from his father. "His father wouldn't allow it. He was a Chinese nationalist and had been quite a firebrand in his day. ... Henry's father kept busy raising thousands of dollars to fight the Japanese back home."
Henry and Keiko also discover a shared love of jazz, and over a trip to the Black Elks Club to hear Sheldon play with local jazz legend Oscar Holden, they begin to fall in love, in that poignant, familiar way of early adolescence. The evening takes a frightening turn, however, when the club is raided by the FBI, and a handful of Japanese patrons handcuffed and taken away. "'Collaborators, kid. Secretary of the Navy says there were Jap scouts working in Hawaii -- all of them locals. That ain't happening around here. ... They can get the death penalty if they're found guilty of treason, but they'll probably just spend a few years in a nice safe jail cell.'" (Never mind that at least one of those captured is an innocent schoolteacher.)
In the coming months, the situation grows still more dire for the residents of Nihonmachi. Panicked neighbors burn wedding dresses, photos, and other family heirlooms, eager to destroy any evidence that might connect them to Japan. Henry stands up to not only his local schoolyard bully, but his own father in his determination to protect Keiko's family's things. It's not enough, though; ultimately, the Okabes are rounded up along with all the other Japanese-Americans, and sent off to interment at the ill-named Camp Harmony. Heartbroken but determined, Henry manages to visit (with some unexpected help from Mrs. Beatty), and even gets Mr. Okabe's permission to court Keiko.
Parallel to Henry and Keiko's story is the more subtle, but nonetheless touching, account of the middle-aged Henry's life: his efforts to find Keiko's things among the basement stash at the Panama Hotel, his tentative relationship with Marty, and how that relationship evolves when Marty comes clean about his own forbidden love: his Caucasian fiancee, Samantha.
I've read plenty of World War II novels, and some of my favorites are set mostly on the home front; Marge Piercy's Gone to Soldiers is a prime example. I haven't come across many that tackle the Japanese interment camps in the U.S., though -- and as I'm always a sucker for immigrant stories about what it means to be of two different cultures (and not belong fully to either), this made for a good backdrop. Hotel on the Corner just may make my faves of the year list.