Japanese Internment – 2 Recent Novels

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet
Jamie Ford
Ballantine, 2009

Sandra Dallas
St. Martin’s, 2007

I’ve been thinking about Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet and Tallgrass a lot lately due to HBO’s mini-series The Pacific.  Years ago I learned about the battles of the Pacific during history classes in Marine Corps boot camp and since then have read many of the first hand accounts and memoirs written by those who fought in the battles.  More recently I read two novels that present a related, but very different experience of some Americans during WWII. 

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet and Tallgrass are both novels about the internment of Japanese Americans after the attack on Pearl Harbor.  I first learned about the internment of Japanese Americans in the late 1980s when I was in college and an author visited campus to talk about his new book on the issue.  I don’t remember the author’s name or the book, but I do remember that I was a bit stunned to learn that the US government relocated and imprisoned its own citizens based on their ethnicity.  This was never mentioned in my high school or Marine Corps classes.  Although I can understand the reasons why this happened, it was still shocking nonetheless.

Jamie Ford’s Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet grabbed my attention when it first came out in hardcover.  It’s one of those books that I decided to read because I wanted to learn more about the issue and the impact it had on people.  Its also Ford’s first novel and I’d heard some positive buzz about it.

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet is the story of Henry Lee, a Chinese American boy living in Seattle.  In 1942 Henry was a thirteen year old boy falling for his Japanese American classmate, Keiko Okabe.  In 1986 Henry is mourning the death of his wife from cancer and trying to relate to his college aged son who is dating a white woman.  The chapters alternate between 1942 and 1986. I don’t always enjoy novels that bounce around in time, but this one worked for me.  Seeing Henry as a boy and then as an older man made him a more sympathetic character for me.  Perhaps as a result I found myself fully engaged in whichever time period happened to be on the page I was currently reading.

Henry’s and Keiko’s families are polar opposites.  Keiko’s family is firmly entrenched in American-ness.  They are an American success story and go along with the relocation and internment because they are loyal Americans.  Henry’s father, on the other hand, hates the Japanese (due to historical relations between China and Japan) and is much more connected to China than America.  Henry’s parents make him wear a button that says “I am Chinese” to protect him from anti-Japanese sentiments in the streets.  Henry and Keiko are obviously innocents torn apart not only by current events, but by parental control.  This novel is about both private and public control and surrender, sacrifice and injustice.

After reading Hotel, a coworker told me about Tallgrass by Sandra Dallas.  By the time Tallgrass came out in 2007, Dallas already had over a half dozen books to her name.  Tallgrass is told from the perspective of another young teen.  Thirteen year old Rennie Stroud is white and her family’s farm in Ellis, Colorado abuts land that is transformed into an internment camp for Japanese Americans.  All of the able-bodied (and able-minded) young men are gone to fight the war and her father gets permission to hire some of the Japanese boys to help with his fields.  Her father’s sense of equality and compassion are contrasted with the bigotry and ignorance of some of the local ne’er-do-wells who have it out for “the Japs.”  There’s even the obligatory scene of good ol’ boys racing down a country road in their pickup truck, itching to cause trouble for the vulnerable Japanese.

Tallgrass involves a murder mystery, family secrets, and Rennie’s coming of age.  After reading Hotel, it was interesting to read a novel that explores the internment issue from the perspective of those who initially did not have a direct emotional connection to a particular individual who was interred.  The anger, fear, and confusion of the everyday folk about the war and toward the Japanese seemed palpable at the hands of Dallas’s storytelling skills.  When I think of one of these novels, I now always think of the other as well.  They’re a pair in my mind.  I can imagine Rennie and Keiko becoming friends or Henry running into Rennie during a visit to meet Keiko.

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet seems to be selling very well in paperback and several customers have mentioned that their book group has selected it now that its in paperback. 

I’ve noticed that its mainly women who pick up either book, although when Hotel first came out several men that I talked with about it purchased it.  I’m always interested in gender differences when it comes to reading choices and reactions.  I suspect it may be the love story aspect of Hotel that may turn men away.  I’d love to hear from folks out there who’ve read Hotel and/or Tallgrass.  What was it that made you decide to read this (these) book(s)?

One comment

  1. I just finished listening to Hotel and loved it! It was informative , heartfelt and spoke of a lot of issues . I enjoyed it very much and have recommended it to others.

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