Review by Tayé Foster Bradshaw
My children and I were on a road trip to Alabama to pick up my college son.
We decided to do what we always do, load up with books, and prepare to enjoy a combined twenty hours of reading on the trip south and back north.
This time, we did something a little differently. We picked up a couple books on tape.
Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, was a nicely rendered story about the immigrants rarely talked about in history class. This story is set in the months prior to the second world war in Seattle. Seattle in 1942 was a world that Asian immigrants, particularly Chinese and Japanese, were able to develop thriving insular communities that resembled their homeland. Many, by this time, were either second or third generation with their parents intent on them being "American."
The Japanese and Chinese were vastly different people with language, customs, foods, and integration ways that were unknown to most Americans at that time. Each shared a quest to fully actualize their potential in the land of opportunity. Some held onto their native languages, even having schools that specifically taught in their dialect. Others pushed to assimilation, like the European immigrants of a previous generation.
Told in the voice of Henry in 1986, now a recent widower and a fifty-something father watching his compeltely Americanized son grow up in a modern era. It was the death of his wife and his wondering of a teenaged love left behind, that is the backdrop of this tender story of love and loss, acceptance, nationalism, community, and what it means to be American.
We encounter many character from the bully son of the town developer who opportunistically bought up all of the Japanese homes once the citizens in those neighborhoods were rounded up like the Nazis rounded up the Jews. American's concentration camps in parts of Northern California and Idaho, are not often discussed in high school history classes. The loss of identity, the burning of precious artifacts, costumes, and caligraphy is a loss of Japanee culture that can never be recovered, despite the reparations paid to survivors.
In listening to the story being read, we thought about the alternating time travel back and forth. I remembered being a young college student in 1986, optimistic and hopeful for a modern future, not unlike Henry's son. The stories of the Civil Rights Movement, the second world war, the Holocaust, the internment, all were a distant part of dusty history books. We were forging ahead, but perhaps in that, were in danger of leaving something behind. This story was a tender reminder of the place that place holds in our collective American history and that while painful, it is important to remember.