In the opening pages of Jamie Ford’s stunning debut novel, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, Henry Lee comes upon a crowd gathered outside the Panama Hotel, once the gateway to Seattle’s Japantown. It has been boarded up for decades, but now the new owner has made an incredible discovery: the belongings of Japanese families, left when they were rounded up and sent to internment camps during World War II. As Henry looks on, the owner opens a Japanese parasol.
This simple act takes old Henry Lee back to the 1940s, at the height of the war, when young Henry’s world is a jumble of confusion and excitement, and to his father, who is obsessed with the war in China and having Henry grow up American. While “scholarshipping” at the exclusive Rainier Elementary, where the white kids ignore him, Henry meets Keiko Okabe, a young Japanese American student. Amid the chaos of blackouts, curfews, and FBI raids, Henry and Keiko forge a bond of friendship–and innocent love–that transcends the long-standing prejudices of their Old World ancestors. And after Keiko and her family are swept up in the evacuations to the internment camps, she and Henry are left only with the hope that the war will end, and that their promise to each other will be kept.
Forty years later, Henry Lee is certain that the parasol belonged to Keiko. In the hotel’s dark dusty basement he begins looking for signs of the Okabe family’s belongings and for a long-lost object whose value he cannot begin to measure. Now a widower, Henry is still trying to find his voice–words that might explain the actions of his nationalistic father; words that might bridge the gap between him and his modern, Chinese American son; words that might help him confront the choices he made many years ago.
Set during one of the most conflicted and volatile times in American history, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet is an extraordinary story of commitment and enduring hope. In Henry and Keiko, Jamie Ford has created an unforgettable duo whose story teaches us of the power of forgiveness and the human heart. (courtesy of Random House)
Jamie Ford (Random House)
Jamie Ford (Bestsellers @ About.com)
Jamie Ford (Red Room)
Author Talk (Book Reporter)
Jamie Ford’s “Corner of Bitter and Sweet” (National Public Radio) audio plus transcript
Interview with Jamie Ford (GoodReads)
Interview with Jamie Ford (WordLily Blog)
An Interview with Jamie Ford (View from the Empty Nest Blog)
Shelf Awareness Talks to Jamie Ford (Shelf Awareness)
Jamie Ford: Call in Sick More Often (1st Books)
Another Five Minutes … With Jamie Ford (AuthorScoop Blog)
Interview with Jamie Ford (Working My Muse Blog)
Booklist, Publisher’s Weekly, Library Journal, School Library Journal and Kirkus Reviews (Falvey Memorial Library, Villanova University)
Review at BookPage (BookPage)
Amazon Reviews (Amazon)
Goodreads Reviews (Goodreads)
Book Discussion: Jamie Ford at Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza (City of Thousand Oaks via YouTube) video
Cupid’s Got a Hangover (Original Essays) by Jamie Ford (Powell’s Books)
Author Jamie Ford on Corner of Future and Success (Seattle Times)
Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet Walking Tour (Bainbridge Public Library) pdf
Japanese American Internment:
Struggle and Growth of the Pre-War Japanese American Community (Densho Project via YouTube) video
Japanese American Incarceration Timeline (Densho Project)
Aftermath of Pearl Harbor (Densho Project via YouTube) video
Removal and Incarceration (Densho Project via YouTube) video
Japanese Relocation (U. S. Government Newsreel) (Densho Project via YouTube) video
Seriously Amazing Objects: This Was Life for Japanese Americans During WWII (Smithsonian via YouTube) video
George Takei on the Japanese Internment Camps of World War II (TV Legends via YouTube) video
Internment of Americans of Japanese Descent During World War II (Manhattan Neighborhood Network via YouTube) video
The Untold Story of Japanese Americans in World War II (AARP via YouTube) video
Japanese American Heroes: World War II (ABC Documentary via YouTube) video
Righting a Wrong (Densho Project via YouTube) video
Michelle Malkin Defends Internment (Sean Hannity Show via YouTube) video
Densho: the Japanese American Legacy Project (Densho.org)
Gender and Crime (Proceedings of the Old Bailey)
Victorian Poisoners (Historic UK)
Arsenic: The Victorian Viagra that Poisoned Britain (Canadian Content)
Seattle Remembers the Japanese Internment (Seattle Magazine)
Historic Panama Hotel Bed and Breakfast (Official Site)
Japanese Bath is “Discovered” in Hotel Cave (Seattle Times via Panama Hotel)
Tea and Treasures (Seattle Times)
Japanese Past Displayed in International District Hotel (Seattle Post-Intelligencer via Panama Hotel)
Mr. Hori and the Panama Hotel, a Nisei Story (Asian Lifestyle Design)
Heartbreak Hotel: Japanese Artifacts Left in a Seattle Basement Freeze a Moment in Time (National Trust for Historic Preservation)
Sex, Drugs & Music Hall (BBC)
Opium Dens and Opium Usage in Victorian England (Victorian History)
Victorian Obsession: Opium (Author Y. S. Lee)
What Opium Smoking Feels Like (Cat’s Meat Shop)
Victorian London’s Drug Culture (All In London)
Absinthe (Pennington Edition)
Absinthe (Unlacing the Victorians)
Absinthe FAQ (Virtual Absinthe Museum)
The Hellfire Club (Wikipedia)
Prostitution in Victorian England (Victorian Web)
The Great Social Evil: Victorian Prostitution (University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh)
Prostitution in Victorian England (Revisiting Dickens)
Prostitution: Then and Now (Hepatitis and AIDS Research Trust)
The Madonna and the Whore: The Victorian Wife and the Victorian Prostitute (Lourdes College) pdf
Jazz History (Seattle) (Office of Film & Music / Seattle)
Jazz on Jackson Street (University of Washington)
Jazz: Jackson Street Era (Office of Film & Music / Seattle)
Community Stories: Jackson Street (Seattle Channel) video
Reforming Acts (BBC)
Annie Besant (Spartacus Educational)
Black and Tan Club (Black Past)
Panama Hotel Jazz by Steve Griggs (KPLU / PBS) audio
Oscar Holden (Black Past)
Living with a Legend (History Link)
19th Century Fashion (Victoria & Albert Museum)
What Victorians Wore (Victorian Web)
Articles & Illustrations from Victorian Books & Magazines (Mostly Victorian)
The Dictionary of Victorian London (Victorian London)
Learning Victorians (British Library)
The Victorian Age (A Victorian)
Crowns, Pounds, & Guineas: A Quick Guide to British Currency (All About Romance)
Late Victorian Coinage (Stadium Magazine)
Victorian Servants (All Things Bright & Beautiful)
Victorian Domestic Servant Hierarchy & Wages (This and That)
The Servants (All About Romance)
The Victorian Bedroom (Back in My Time)
Gender & Sexuality in the 19th Century (Victoria & Albert Museum)
Coming Out: The London Season (Kate Tattersall)
The London Season (The History Box)
The Victorian House Party (All About Romance)
The Victorian Ball (Victoriana Magazine)
You’re Dead to Me: The Victorian Art of the Cut Direct (Author Juliet Moore)
Calling and Calling Cards (Castle Falkenstein)
Development of Victorian Morality (English Epochs 101)
The Malodorous Metropolis (Victorian History)
Health & Medicine in the 19th Century (Victoria & Albert Museum)
19th Century British Medicine and Public Health (Victorian Web)
Victorian Remedies: Of Course It’s Safe! (Pennington Edition)
The Physician in the 19th Century (Jane Austen’s World)
Medical Doctors in the Victorian Era (Steampunk Tribune)
Body Snatching (Jane Austen’s World)
Grave Matters: The Body Snatchers Unearthed (The Chirurgeon’s Apprentice)
Body Snatching: A Grave Medical Problem (National Center for Biotechnology Information) pdf
Victorian Transport (The Ocular Helmsman)
Getting Around: Carriages in Regency and Victorian Times (All About Romance)
Transport and Carriages in the Victorian Era (Horse Canada)
The Case of the “Growler” and the Handsome Hansom (Victorian History)
The Railway in Victorian England (Hated Rivals on the Surrey Shore)
Ravens of the Tower of London (Wikipedia)
Meet the Ravens (Historic Royal Palaces) video Scroll halfway down the page and click on “View our ‘Meet the Ravens’ video”
Gypsies & Travellers (Proceedings of the Old Bailey)
London’s Romany Gypsies (Culture 24)
Gypsies and Travellers (Travellers Times) pdf
Romany Roots (BBC)
Romani People (Wikipedia)
Reading Tea Leaves:
How to Read Tea Leaves (Tasseomancy) (Tasseography.com)
Reading Tea Leaves (Reading Tea Leaves.info)
Bibliography (Victorian Studies)
19th Century Mysteries (Stop You’re Killing Me)
Murder by Gaslight: Mystery Fiction Set in the Victorian Era (Lincoln City Libraries, NB)
19th Century Historical Mysteries (Crime Thru Time)
Victorian Mysteries (Historical Mystery Fiction)
Popular Victorian Mystery Books (GoodReads)
- The narration of Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet shifts between Henry Lee’s perspective as a 56-year-old retiree in the mid-1980s, and his perspective as a schoolboy living in Seattle during World War II. Why do you think the author chose to write a novel from two different periods in his protagonist’s life, spanning some 40 years? What perspective can an older Henry give? What does the adult Henry have in common with his younger self, and in what ways does his character change over the course of the novel? How has your character changed over the course of your history?
- Why does Henry’s father refuse to allow his son to speak Cantonese at home, but require him wear a button that reads “I Am Chinese” whenever he is out of the house? How does this square with his desire to send Henry back to China for school? Isn’t Henry’s father sending him a mixed message?
- To what extent are Henry’s father’s attitudes toward his Japanese American neighbors determined by his view of Japan as an enemy of China? How does Henry’s father’s identity as a Chinese nationalist come into conflict with his desire to have his son, Henry, live life as an American?
- How does Keiko Okabe’s arrival as a fellow scholarship student at Rainier Elementary change Henry’s feelings about his job in the school kitchen? What accounts for their unusual bond? What do the unkind comments made by their classmates reveal about the mistrust many Americans felt toward Asian Americans during World War II?
- Keiko surprises Henry when she reveals to him that she doesn’t understand or speak Japanese; like Henry’s parents, her parents want her to speak only English. What do the aspirations the Okabes and Lees have for their American-born children suggest about the collective desire of immigrants from all walks of life to assimilate or “fit in” to their new homelands? In what ways do the families of Keiko and Henry illustrate different aspects of the American immigrant experience?
- Do you know what struggles your own ancestors had as immigrants to America, and to what extent they incorporated aspects of their cultural heritage into their new identities as Americans?
- When Henry and Keiko attend Sheldon Thomas’s jazz performance at the Black Elks Club, Henry observes patrons of different races mingling together. What does jazz represent to Henry and Keiko, individually, and how do their families feel about their appreciation for it? What is it about jazz, specifically, that allows Henry and Keiko to bend rules in their own lives?
- If a novel could have a soundtrack, this one would be jazz. What is it about this indigenous form of American music that makes it an especially appropriate choice? How would the novel differ if jazz were not a component of it? Do you think any other type of music could have worked just as well?
- Given their different ages, races, and occupations, what accounts for Henry’s unusual friendship with Sheldon Thomas? Do you consider that their love of jazz contributes to and strengthens their friendship? What does Sheldon’s willingness to journey with Henry on a bus to Minidoka, Idaho, reveal about his feelings for Henry? How is the nature of this friendship borne out over the course of the novel?
- When Chaz Preston’s father needs Henry’s father’s support to advance his plans for developing Japantown, why does Henry intentionally deceive his father? Is he wrong to betray his father’s trust in this way? What does the internment of ethnically Japanese U.S. citizens threaten to do to the character of Seattle’s Nihonmachi? What does Henry’s behavior reveal about his loyalties to his father and to his classmate Keiko?
- Why does Henry agree to conceal the Okabe family’s photo albums in his parents’ apartment? Why are the Lees worried about their son’s possession of hidden mementos belonging to an interned Japanese family, and to what extent can you understand this concern? When Henry justifies his actions on the grounds that Keiko is an American, why does his father disagree?
- “If you walk out of that door now, you are no longer part of this family. You are no longer Chinese. You are not part of us anymore,” so speaks Henry’s father (p. 185). Compare and contrast Henry’s mother’s and father’s treatment of him in the wake of his concealment of Keiko’s family’s photographs. Henry’s mother comes from a culture in which wives are subservient to their husbands. Given this background, do you think she could have done more to help Henry in his struggles against his father? Is her loyalty to her husband a betrayal of her son? Why do Henry’s actions threaten his very identity in the eyes of his family?
- What do the conditions Henry witnesses at Camp Harmony suggest about the government’s treatment of the Japanese American internees? Why does Mrs. Beatty recruit Henry to accompany her on her trips to the camp? How sympathetic does Mrs. Beatty seem to Henry and Keiko’s plight? How does your understanding of her character change of the course of the novel? Did she surprise you? What does this suggest about the assumptions that often guide our judgments of people?
- How does Henry’s physical appearance enable him to gain access to parts of Camp Harmony that would normally be off-limits for civilians? How does he benefit from this same confusion to gain access to the belongings of Japanese families in the Panama Hotel? To what extent do you think his acts of deception are justified?
- “Grafted the night his son was born, from a Chinese tree in a Japanese garden, all those years ago” (p. 85). How is the ume tree that Henry tends in his back garden emblematic of his involvement in both Chinese and Japanese communities of Seattle? How do you interpret the symbolism of Henry having grafted the ume as a sapling from a scion in old Japantown? Why does he do this on the occasion of Marty’s birth?
- Why does Henry’s father make a deathbed confession about preventing the delivery of Henry’s letters to Keiko? To what extent is his father’s interference indirectly responsible for Henry’s relationship with Ethel? What does Henry’s decision to go to China in spite of his father’s dishonesty reveal about his sense of filial obligation? If you were Henry, would you be able to forgive your father? Does Henry’s father deserve forgiveness?
- Father-son relationships are a crucial theme in the novel. Talk about some of these relationships and how they are shaped by culture and time. For example, how is the relationship between Henry and his father different from that between Henry and Marty? What accounts for the differences? In what ways is Henry’s relationship with his father healed by his engagement to Ethel Chen? How does Marty’s engagement to Samantha impact his relationship with his father?
- Does Henry give up on Keiko too easily? What else could he have done to find her? What about Keiko? Why didn’t she make more of an effort to see Henry once she was released from the camp?
- “His father had said once that the hardest choices in life aren’t between what’s right and wrong but between what’s right and what’s best.” (p. 204) How does this statement apply to some of the choices Henry makes in his behavior toward Keiko and her family during the war?
- Compare Marty’s relationship with Samantha to Henry’s relationship with Keiko. Are these relationships different due to culture, upbringing, time period or a combination of all three?
- Do you think Ethel might have known what was happening with Henry’s letters?
- What is the significance of the missing 78 record, Oscar Holden & the Midnight Blue, for which Henry spends 40 years searching? Why do Henry and Sheldon Thomas both long to hear “The Alley Cat Strut” again? When Henry eventually retrieves the broken record from the basement of the Panama Hotel, what does its damage represent to him?
- What does Henry’s persistence in searching for proof of Keiko’s family and evidence of his past relationship with her, reveal about the nature of his feelings? Why does he conceal some aspects of his past with Keiko from his wife, Ethel, and avoid discussing Keiko’s existence with his son, Marty, until he is asked directly about his obsession with the belongings in the Panama Hotel? What accounts for his reticence in revisiting this period of his life?
- How does Henry experience Keiko’s transformation into Kay Hatsune? What does her gesture at the end of Sheldon Thomas’s life reveal about her feelings for Henry? Given the intensity of their early history together, and their complicated past, how likely is it that Keiko and Henry will resume their friendship as adults?
- What sacrifices do the characters in the novel make in pursuit of their dreams for themselves and for others? Do you think any characters sacrifice too much, or for the wrong reasons? Consider the sacrifices Mr. Okabe makes, for example, and those of Mr. Lee. Both fathers are acting for the sake of their children, yet the results are quite different. Why?
- From the beginning of the novel, Henry wears the “I am Chinese” button given to him by his father. What is the significance of this button and its message, and how has Henry’s understanding of that message changed by the end of the novel?
- Elie Wiesel, a noble laureate and Holocaust survivor once said that “the opposite of love is not hate, but indifference.” How is this quotation represented in the novel?
- What is the significance of the Panama Hotel in Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet? In what ways does the Panama Hotel function like a character in its own right in the novel? How does the hotel participate in both the “bitter” and the “sweet” of the book’s title over the course of Henry’s life?
- When Henry Lee, as an adult, walks through downtown Seattle, he passes the Panama Hotel, a symbol of the Japanese people who disappeared into the internment camps during World War II. Like Henry, we see around us remnants of history in statues, plaques, buildings, bridges, etc. – history that has touched us, our families and/or our friends. What impact has history had on your family and those that you know?
- The Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet tells the story about the demands of loyalty, self-sacrifice and tradition. Perhaps it is easy to see what Henry is asked to give up. What does he gain?
- In many ways, we live most fully when bitter and sweet intersect. Why is that so? Consider some of those moments in your own life or in the lives of your family or friends and try to explain why those moments become so meaningful.
- In an interview, Jamie Ford quoted an old saying, “Everyone has two chances at a parent/child relationship, once as a child and once as a parent.” How has this story made you more understanding of both your parents and your children?
- The arts (in all their forms – music, dancing, painting, drawing, literature, poetry, etc.) are great levelers, touching us and helping us bridge the differences that separate us. The arts give us a universal language to express our humanity – our fears, our joys – and to help us establish communication and trust. Would the characters in The Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet agree?
- Henry and Keiko experience jazz together. The missing 78 record becomes a symbol throughout the novel – from the original that Henry and Keiko purchased, to smuggling it into the internment camp, to the 40-year search, to finding the record broken, to receiving the recording as a gift from Keiko to be played for Sheldon as he dies. Do you have a special song or type of music that sings through your life?
- Have you ever experienced the phenomenon that Henry describes on page 115? : “When the music played, it didn’t seem to make a lick of difference if your last name was Abernathy or Anjou, Kung or Kobayashi.”
- What if you were being evacuated from your home and you only had 24 hours to get your affairs in order and pack a small suitcase of your belongings for your stay at your new location – how would you feel? What would you pack for storage? What would be in your suitcase?
- Henry’s past and his relationship with his father has influenced his present day living, and yet he is given a new start with Marty and Samantha; and Marty is given a new understanding into his father. What is the importance of sharing family history and memories? How does this work in your family?
- Do generational differences and struggles like those between Henry and his father and Henry and his son still exist? Examples?
- Was the US government right or wrong to “relocate” Japanese-Americans and other citizens and residents who had emigrated from countries the US was fighting in WWII? Was some kind of action necessary following Pearl Harbor? Could the government have done more to safeguard civil rights while protecting national security?
- Should the men and women of Japanese ancestry rounded up by the US during the war have protested more actively against the loss of their property and liberty? Remember that most were eager to demonstrate their loyalty to the US. What would you have done in their place? What’s to prevent something like this from ever happening again?
- In the novel, fear motivates the government to turn its back on its own citizens and violate their fundamental rights. What other groups in American have suffered discrimination based on fear? Has our government responded the same or differently each time?
- Of the major elements of design in the novel – plot, character, setting, point of view – which would you say stands out the most?
- Do you consider this to be “an implausible love story”?
- This has been called a story of hope. Do you agree or disagree with this claim? Why / not?
- What part of this book spoke to you the most, and why? What part of the book confused you the most? Why did you have a hard time with this?
- Who was your favorite character and why? Who was your least favorite character and why?
(Questions provided by )
Other books by Ford: Songs of Willow Frost.
Recommendations (NoveList & other sources): And Only to Decieve by Tasha Alexander — Cater Street Hangman by Anne Perry — The Face of a Stranger by Anne Perry– A Beautiful Blue Death by Charles Finch– Murder on Astor Place by Victoria Thompson — Maisie Dobbs by Jacqueline Winspear — Cut to the Quick by Kate Ross — The Hanover Square Affair by Ashley Gardner — A Flaw in the Blood by Stephanie Barron — Blind Justice by Bruce Alexander — A Foreign Affair by Caro Peacock– Daughter of the Game by Tracy Grant — Death at Bishop’s Keep by Robin Paige — What Angels Fear by C. S. Harris — Crocodile on the Sandbank by Elizabeth Peters — Cocaine Blues by Kerry Greenwood — Murphy’s Law by Rhys Bowen — The Strange Files of Freemont Jones by Dianne Day — The Beekeeper’s Apprentice by Laurie R. King — A Wicked Way to Burn by Margaret Miles — Murder on the Lusitania by Conrad Allen — The Flower Reader by Elizabeth Loupas — Some Danger Involved by Will Thomas — A Conspiracy of Violence by Susanna Gregory — Hawkwood by James McGee — The Crimson Cavalier by Mary Andrea Clarke — Gallow’s Thief by Bernard Cornwell — The Tomb of Zeus by Barbara Cleverly — Deadly Love by Brenda Joyce — Duke’s Agent by Rebecca Jenkins — The Mermaid in the Basement by Gilbert Morris — Mr. Timothy by Louis Bayard — The Conjurer by Cordelia Frances Biddle — The Secret History of the Pink Carnation by Lauren Willig — Wobble to Death by Peter Lovesey — The Three-Body Problem by Catherine Shaw — The Yard by Alex Grecian — Sister Beneath the Sheet by Gillian Linscott — Room With a Clue by Kate Kingsbury — Mistress of the Art of Death by Ariana Franklin — The Rose in the Wheel by S. K. Rizzolo — Lord John and the Private Matter by Diana Gabaldon — The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins.