Happy Veteran's Day, once known as Armistice Day. It's time to remember our soldiers and sailors, present and past; I'm sure many families, like mine, have veterans somewhere back in the line. To those who are currently serving, thank you.
This book seemed appropriate for Veteran's Day. I just bought it a few weeks back, and happened to pick it up to read last week.
HOTEL NO THE CORNER OF BITTER AND SWEET
by Jamie Ford
It's 1986, and Henry Lee, whose wife of 30 years recently died, happened upon a crowd at the Panama Hotel in Seattle, where the long-forgotten belongings of Japanese families sent to internment camps during World War II, have just been found. The hotel's been boarded up all of these years, and a paper parasol being displayed causes Henry to recall events of forty years earlier.
In 1942, Henry, the 12 year old son of Chinese immigrants, is attending a private school in Seattle, as a scholarship student. This causes the other kids in Chinatown to shun him, calling him a White Ghost. The white students at school either ignore him or pick on and bully him. His only friend is a black saxophone player, who plays on the street and sometimes in clubs for a living. As part of Henry's scholarship package, he works in the cafeteria, helping Mrs. Beatty, a bruiser of a no-nonsense woman, to serve lunch, and cleaning up alone afterward. Then, one day, a Japanese girl appears to help in the cafeteria. This girl, Keiko, becomes Henry's only friend at school, despite the fact that he knows his father would vehemently disapprove.
Henry's parents speak only Chinese, and while they speak to him in Chinese, he is expected to answer them in English: "Use your American!" is his father's favorite phrase. His father also makes him wear a button on his lapel which declares "I am Chinese," an ominous portent of things to come. It is expected that Henry will go to school through 8th grade in America, and then "go home" to his father's village in China to finish his education - a place Henry's never been, for an education he doesn't want. His father keeps track of Japan's defeats and victories in the war, because in his mind Japan is always the enemy; he fled China to escape Japan's bombings, after all.
Against this backdrop, Henry and Keiko become best friends; he meets her family and is treated kindly by her parents. They walk home together each day, parting at the border between Nihonmachi - her neighborhood - and Chinatown. They listen to Sheldon play his sax. They behave like normal friends, even developing a pre-teen love attachment.
And then the internment order comes. One day, Henry finds Keiko and her family being loaded on a train for a camp south of Seattle, and he's devastated. Mrs. Beatty displays astonishing kindness to him, enabling Henry to find Keiko, and stay in contact with her through the war.
This book reminded me of Veteran's Day because of the lengthy descriptions of the rounding up of Japanese-American families, many of whom were second or third generation American born. The attitudes of the soldiers working at the camps, the feelings Henry displayed, the eagerness of the Japanese-Americans to sign up for the US Army and prove their value to their country. All of these things haunted me as much as Henry's loss, and the still-fresh hurt, 40 years later. "His father had once said the the hardest choices aren't between what's right and what's wrong, but between what's right and what's best..." And so had gone Henry's life.
So when he took his son, just graduating from college, to the Panama Hotel to see if Keiko's things were still there, his son, who wasn't particularly close or seemingly sympathetic to Henry, helped him to find what he sought - even though Henry didn't even know he was looking.
A moving story from beginning to end - and I cried through the last 30 pages or so. 5/5, enthusiastically.
So, Happy Veteran's Day, everyone, with an unusual salute to Veterans past and present.