Confession: I failed Junior year History in a blaze of apathy. I realized that it summer school was going to be 99% easier than regular school. The 1% difficulty percentage was having to wake up on the summer mornings.
Of course I don’t remember what that year covered, but I believe it was US History from the Civil War until sometime after WWII and maybe even up to Vietnam.
A stupid amount of history to try and cram into one year.
Luckily I realized in college that I enjoyed history and have ventured out on my own. I am surprised at what I missed out on and wonder if it was even covered in class while I was sleeping or writing notes or reading a book or doing whatever it was I did for the semester.
One huge piece of American History I missed out on was the Japanese internment camps of WWII.
I do not know how this information slipped by me, but it wasn’t until I was 21 years that I learned we rounded up American citizens, forced them into camps and pointed machine guns at them so they couldn’t signal the enemy to bomb us in our sleep.
Is this being taught in high school? I keep meaning to do an informal poll among my friends but then I get distracted by Facebook or whatever and it doesn’t seem important. (The American Way.)
So…Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet.
The story is told from the point of view of Henry, a Chinese American in Seattle. The books slips back and forth from 50-something Henry in present time (1986) to 12 year old Henry growing up in Seattle during WWII. Like many first and second generation children, he has a hard time figuring out where he belongs. His father forbids him from speaking Chinese so that people will know he is an American. The white kids at school don’t care that he’s Chinese. He looks like the enemy, so he must be the enemy.
This is a common theme in non-fiction and fiction of the Immigrant Experience. How does one straddle the two worlds while figuring out how to belong anywhere?
12 year old Henry meets 12 year old Keiko. They are both at the white American school and neither is white. Henry is horrified to learn that Keiko is Japanese, and then startled that perhaps this doesn’t matter. His father would possibly kill him for befriending the enemy but the two of them are American and have much in common.
The plot follows the path of history: the war continues and Keiko and her family are sent to the internment camps.
The book does a lovely job switching between present day Henry and 12 year old Henry. We see his struggles with his dual cultures and his growing friendship and love with Keiko. He is powerless to do anything when her family is sent to the camps. He has no voice at home or anywhere else.
While familiar, the book is not clichéd. The characters are carefully developed and feel real. Present Day Henry has a son and watching the third generation’s adaptation feels almost too easy compared to what Henry had to navigate, but this lends to the realism.
For some reason I didn’t have active guesses of what was going to happen while I was reading. I knew Keiko was going to have to end up at the camps and I knew present day Henry was going to learn something, but I went with the movement of the story and didn’t try to jump ahead in my mind. When a character makes a suggestion, I was surprised and then excited because it made sense and why didn’t I think of it myself?
The ending was satisfying, which is always good. Reading a book that disappoints you in the last chapter can feel like a kick in the shins.
This is a great read and fits in with readers just learning about the internment camps, readers who already know what happened, and readers who enjoy immigrant experience literature.