When you think of World War II and human rights violations, there is a plethora of horrors to choose from. Most of them take place comfortably far from American soil. But shift the lens to our shores and the American conscience can't rest quite so easily. In times of crisis and intense fear, even the good guys don't always live up to their own standards.
Jamie Ford's debut novel, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, sheds some light on this panicky, frightening time in American history. Set in wartime Seattle, this love story between Henry, a Chinese boy, and Keiko, a Japanese girl, might change your mind about internment camps' place in history books.
As the story is told in alternating sections, Henry is either an idealistic, earnest and bewildered 12-year-old boy in 1942, or a dispirited and lonely 56-year-old man in 1986, exhausted after seven years of caring for his ailing wife, Ethel, and disappointed with his life. His old soul, precocious in a 12-year-old, is now perfectly at home in this old-before-his-time shell.
At the old Panama Hotel, abandoned since the end of World War II and undergoing a major restoration, a treasure trove of possessions that belonged to local Japanese families is found in the basement. The adult Henry begins a herculean effort, rummaging in the stuffed basement of the hotel, looking for his long-lost love's belongings from more than 40 years ago.
Henry, overcome with memories, struggles with his yearning for Keiko, still strong after all these years. Gradually we learn how he fell in love with her despite his stern, traditional father's vehement opposition and the growing prejudice against everyone of Japanese descent. Henry has never fully recovered from losing her during her years in an internment camp, but the inertia of his current life, his son and the "Ethel-shaped hole in (his) life" hold him in place.
"His father had said once that the hardest choices in life aren't between what's right and what's wrong but between what's right and what's best." Henry, used to taking care of everyone except himself, is no longer sure what is right or what is best.
Ford does a masterful job creating a lost time and place. Seattle of the 1940s comes vividly alive, with a thriving jazz scene and a mix of cultures. Readers will see and feel the struggle between right and best as Japanese, Chinese, black and white bump, chafe and sometimes spontaneously combust under the strain of the constant fear of war.
Tammar Stein is the author of "Light Years" and "High Dive." Her third novel, "Kindred," will be published in 2010.