I’m glad I was able to read Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet with my book club. I gave the book a rare 5 stars so you know I liked it. I was curious to see what my book club would think and on the whole, we liked it. It’s a really solid read.
Cultural identity is a big theme in this book. The button Henry wore, the ‘I Am Chinese’ button, made it hard to forget how important cultural identity can be. Being Chinese was ‘good’ because they were on the same side in the war. Only the innocent eyes of a child could see they were all Americans. But the Chinese were afraid of looking like the Japanese. I’m sure Koreans and other East Asians were afraid of the same thing. While it’s not hard for a Japanese to recognize another Japanese, it’s hard for a white American raised in the states to tell a Chinaman from a Japanese.
Some of us were amazed to hear the Japanese men volunteered to serve in the US army after being put in the internment camps. The government had done so much to disadvantage them yet they were willing to die for that government. We think it did prove their loyalty to the US, but it did nothing to help them out of the camps. When the atomic bombs dropped on Japan, the Japanese-Americans were happy, especially the soldiers who could then go home to their families. They might have had relatives die in the fall-out, but they were happy to see it end.
Is this a part of US history we have learned from, or is this something that’s doomed to repeat itself? Our group was split on this question. It’s easy to identify conservative Muslims by hijabs and long beards but after the 9/11 attacks, they weren’t put in mass internment camps. Some in our group still think this could happen. Every group has its struggles when it’s the ‘new immigrant.’ Irish, Italians, Jews, Blacks, Arabs, and Hispanics are just the ones that come to mind. The Japanese were on this list at a pivotal time in US history. I think the Japanese internment is an incident that won’t be repeated.
If the Japanese had revolted, it wouldn’t have helped anything. They were already viewed negatively from perceived loyalties to an enemy nation and though the book didn’t say it, I’m sure there were hate crimes involved. No one was willing to listen so yelling louder wasn’t going to do much good.
The relationship between Henry and his father provided us with a lot to talk about in our meeting. We thought it was somewhat contradictory that Henry’s parents wanted him to speak English at home so they could learn it but wanted to send him to China to finish school. His parents didn’t seem to be learning English from him at all, so the practice seems to have been pointless.
If I were Henry, it would be hard to forgive my father. He thought he was doing the right thing, but it seems to have hurt Henry in the long run. Henry doesn’t have to forgive his father, but life would be easier if he did. Holding a grudge like that is hard.
The paralleled relationship between Henry and Marty made the similarities very apparent. Marty is also scared to tell his father about his relationship because of his fiancée’s ethnicity. However, both Samantha and Keiko are American. All Marty saw was Ethyl, the traditional Chinese-.American bride and Henry did nothing to change that opinion. Henry didn’t want to share with is son how he was the rebellious ‘wild child’ to his parents. Children don’t like to think of their parents before they were parents.
The only thing about Henry that bothered some of our group was that we felt the author treated 56-year-old Henry like a character in his 80s. My in-laws are older than that and act 30 years younger than this character. It seemed odd.
One of our discussion questions asked if Henry gave up on Keiko too easily. Honestly, none of us did. He was 12 when he fell in love with her and tried everything he could for four years to stay in contact with her. He had exhausted all his avenues except for going to the camp again. And going to the camp was very risky because the white guards might have made him stay inside it, being unable to tell him from the Japanese trapped inside.
The opposite question is why Keiko didn’t try to see Henry. It seemed like he wasn’t writing her back for a few years, that he wanted to be left alone. By the time she came back, he might have been in China and was at least dating Ethyl. She was a nice girl, she probably didn’t want to ruin his happiness.
We all liked the relationship between Henry and Sheldon. Most of us thought Sheldon was older than he was, at least in his 50s and not only 16 years older than Henry. He was half-way between a father figure and a brother figure.
There were things at the end of the book some members had issues with. One was that we never found out what happened to Mrs. Beatty’s father. They mentioned he had been captured, but we were given no closure on the topic. Others felt it was too rushed and tied up too perfectly. I do agree with this, I felt the ending was quick. One of the other problems someone had with the end was the use of technology to find someone in 1986. No one in our group could answer that well, but he answers that question on his site. It seems Marty is a self-insert into the story and Ford could have done this at the time. Mystery solved?
I hope you enjoyed this book as well. It made for a good book club pick.
Until next time, write on.
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