Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Man's Inhumanity to Man

I'm a librarian so I could do the research and see who to credit with this phrase and I should, since I think of it so often when I'm reading. It comes to me over and over while listening to The Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, a new novel and a book group's dream, by Jamie Ford.


Once again we have just passed the anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and our local news has deified the few last living members of the squads that dropped those atomic bombs. My own dad was co-pilot on a B-24 during World War II so I'm not insensitive to the fact that men were doing their jobs during the last "just" war, but I wish he'd have talked more about it before he died so I could try to understand how a person justifies the "collateral damage." I know his missions were to destroy railroads and manufacturing plants but to think of the devastation to an entire city and the residual effects of radiation illness that travels down through future generations simply boggles the mind.

This book, set in Seattle, toggles back and forth between the 1980's and the 1940's. Henry Lee's wife has just died after a long struggle with cancer and he's in a reminscent and melancholy mood when he walks by the old Panama Hotel and sees activity indicative of a refurbishment. Memories assault him as he thinks back to his childhood and his best friend Keiko who, with her family, lived in the hotel temporarily before being evacuated permanently to an internment camp.
The Chinese American Henry and Japanese American Keiko were first drawn to eachother in the kitchen of their "white" school where they both worked as scholarship students. Each was the butt of constant ridicule and harrassment by fellow students too ignorant to differentiate between nationalities but mean enough to know that Henry and Keiko looked different. Much like Muslim Americans after Sept. 11th, they were now the enemy.

The evil of prejudice and its insidious nature are at the heart of this lovely debut novel, yet there are so many bright spots in the book that what could have been a condemnation of humanity is, in fact, a tender love story and also a study of family and the damage that we can do when we neglect to be our true selves with those we love. This is most pronounced in the relationship between Henry and his son Martin which grows so much deeper after Henry, searching through the treasures in the basement of the Panama, begins to share his past with his only child.

Ford shows an impressive knowledge of the history of jazz music and clubs in Seattle in the 40's, evidenced by the delightful Sheldon, a black saxaphonist, a sidewalk muscian, who feels a kinship with the outcasts, Henry and Keiko, befriending them and playing a role in their budding romance. All in all this is a beautiful first novel with some gorgeous cover art. And, oh yes, the phrase can be credited to poet Robert Burns.

No comments: