Jamie Ford's debut novel of hope is set against a dark backdrop of racial tensions in World War II Seattle. It's well written. It's romantic. And it's derivative. David Guterson's Snow Falling on Cedars precedes this book by four years, where nearly the same story is told. In Guterson's book, a non-Japanese falls in love with a Japanese-American girl just before Japanese Americans are relocated to internment camps inland. In Ford's, a Chinese boy falls in love with a Japanese-American girl just before she and her family are sent to an internment camp in Idaho. That doesn't make Ford's book a copy. It isn't. It's a strong, literary treatment of love in a time of crisis.
In Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, Ford introduces us to Henry, a twelve-year-old Chinese boy living with his traditional parents in Seattle's Chinatown. His parents send him to a white prep junior high where he meets Keiko, another twelve year old. Keiko's family is about as different as it can be from Henry's. Her parents are proud Americans first, Japanese second. They are progressive where Henry's family of suffocatingly traditional. Henry is forbidden to speak Cantonese at home. His father insists he use "his American" even though neither parent understands much English. Keiko's family is open, fun-loving. Keiko doesn't even know how to speak Japanese, even though she lives in Nihonmachi.
With internment comes separation of the children. Keiko promises to return; Henry promises to wait. They write each other until the time between letters becomes too long. Eventually, the letters stop.
The book switches between the mid 1940s and 1986. Secondary characters are well drawn, the plot is solid, and the longing both children feel for each other is believable.
Deliberately derivative or not, both Snow Falling on Cedars and Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet should be required reading for the glimpse they give into a world now nearly forgotten.