And now we come to volume 3 in the Unintentional World War Two trilogy — the third of three books I read in a row all dealing with aspects of the second world war that I knew little about. Mind you, I knew more about the internment of Japanese immigrants and their descendants in both the U.S. and Canada, than I did about either the development of the atomic bomb or the German occupation of Guernsey. What I didn’t know, and learned from reading Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, was how the Japanese internment might have looked in the city of Seattle, from the perspective of a young Chinese-American boy whose father is (as many Chinese were, due to the Japanese attacks on China) rabidly anti-Japanese, but whose closest friend and first love is a Japanese-American girl.
The story is told through flashbacks, with the tale of widower Henry in the 1980s exploring his past unfolding alongside the scenes of young Henry and his friendship with Keiko in the 1940s, just as Seattle’s Japanese residents are about to be swept from their homes into internment camps far from home. A moral outrage of wartime is depicted here through the eyes of two young teenagers taking their first steps into adulthood and independence.
What I found most interesting in this novel was the role of Chinese-Americans in this drama. Henry’s father pins a button to his shirt that reads “I AM CHINESE” because so many white Americans couldn’t distinguish between Chinese and Japanese, so it was easy for Chinese people to find themselves targets of anti-Japanese racism. The same surface similarity of Asian features that makes Henry a potential target for bullying also, ironically, allows him access to Keiko as she is about to be taken away from him.
Henry is an uneasy traveller between worlds, not fully comfortable either in his parents’ Chinese home or at the all-white school he attends. He comes closest to feeling comfortable in the company of a black jazz musician and in Keiko’s Japanese community before it’s torn apart. All the worlds through which the younger Henry moves uneasily are depicted vividly and believably in this novel, which kept me turning pages till the end.