Love and hate, war and peace, resistance and acceptance, and government malfeasance: all of these things make an appearance in Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, by Jamie Ford. It’s well worth reading and even better, for me, it takes place in Seattle.
This part of the book is fiction: a young Chinese-American boy and a young Japanese-American girl strike up a friendship during World War II. They are torn apart when the girl’s family is sent to an internment camp. Before they go, the family hastily stashes their belongings in the basement of the Panama Hotel.
This part of the book is true: All of the Japanese people in Seattle and elsewhere were rounded up by soldiers and sent to internment camps for the remainder of the war. In Seattle, many families hastily stashed their belongings in the basement of the Panama Hotel, a venerable old place in the heart of what was then called Japantown. They intended to return to their homes and businesses after the war, and to reclaim their possessions.
This is current reality: The Panama Hotel is still there, still operating, and has a lovely tea room on the first floor. And the stuff in the basement is still there! By the time the war was over, Japantown had been taken over by white and Chinese residents and businesses. There was nothing for the internees to return to. The whole area is now called the International District.
This is what we did: The mother/daughter book club, 6th grade edition, read the book. We all met in the tea room of the Panama Hotel to discuss it. We studied the many World War II era photos on the walls and peered through the glass tile in the floor at the dusty relics in the basement below. A kind employee even opened up the hatch and let us stare down the rickety staircase leading into the darkness. We weren’t allowed to go down, but the dank air of history wafted up to us. We drank gallons of tea and had our best book club meeting ever, covering the plot points in the story as well as a thoughtful discussion of the immigrant experience in America, how it has changed, and how it has not. And because our little group includes several immigrant families, we were able to go pretty deep.
Talked out, we went upstairs into the hotel, where the manager, after shushing the noisy kids, gave us a mini-tour. We gaped at the tiny room with the ancient bedframe, handmade wardrobe, and bathroom down the hall. Then we got dinner at the sushi place across the street.
That’s all I wanted to say about that.
Now looking for a book set in Hawaii for our next on-location book club meeting.