Literary Analysis: "Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet" as a Historical Fiction

Categories: Fiction

In Jamie Ford’s historical fiction Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, this split narrative focuses on two eras: 1942 and 1986. Within these era’s, Ford’s novel focuses on a Chinese boy, Henry Lee, and what it was like to grow up in the international district with prejudice everywhere, especially in his own family being a first generation American. His novel tells the story of Henry, as well as a Japanese girl by the name of Keiko.

The novel tells the story of these two young friends and the hardships faced when the government sends Keiko and her family away to the Japanese internment camps in the Northwest in the 1940’s.

His novel displays the effects of the prejudice held against the Japanese during the 1940’s wartime, and the effects it had on the lives of not only those Japanese, but also all Americans, Chinese and other nationalities. We use Anne Scott MacLeod’s essay “Rewriting History” as a framework while reading Ford’s Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet.

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“Rewriting History” is a persuasive essay giving criteria of a “good” Historical Fiction vs. “bad” Historical Fiction.

This essay focuses on three of MacLeod’s criteria for a “good” Historical Fiction: not rewarding rebellion, not appealing to “modern sensibilities”, and not overcoming social mores easily. Ford’s novel Hotel on the Corner of Biter and Sweet successfully meets MacLeod’s requirements for a “good” historical fiction in many ways, although, there are some flaws in a couple of his historical facts, nevertheless, the “good” historical facts and information in Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet out ways the few historical flaws.

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First of all, Ford makes sure to give Henry consequences to his rebellious acts; something MacLeod says many “bad” historical fictions do not do, they only reward with happy endings. Secondly, Ford uses racial discriminations that would have been used back in the 1940’s; another thing MacLeod says that “bad” historical fiction accommodates to, making it non-offensive and politically correct for the readers. In addition, Henry does not easily overcome the social mores of 1942; again something MacLeod says that “bad” historical fiction makes it seem easy to overcome the social mores of the era.

First of all, meeting MacLeod’s criteria for a “good” historical fiction”, Ford’s novel does not “make overt rebellion seem nearly painless and nearly always successful”. Ford displays this when Keiko is taken away Henry keeps some of her belongings safe under his dresser, as well as when Henry sneaks into two different Japanese internment camps searching for Keiko. Though this rebellion seems rewarded at first, as we continue reading we see how, by going to the internment camps and keeping Keiko’s belongings, Henry unknowingly starts a chain of events leading to one, giant consequence.

Because Henry keeps Keiko’s belonging, and later writes her letters, his mother finds out and tells Henry’s father. Henry comes home one day and finds his parents at the kitchen table waiting for him with all of Keiko’s pictures spread all over the table. Because of this, Henry’s father gives him a choice: walk out the door and no longer be part of the family or stay and forget about Keiko. In the end Henry chooses to follow his heart and leaves his family (182-185). This forever affects the relationship between Henry and his father, even on his father’s deathbed.

Secondly, according to MacLeod’s standard, Ford’s novel is a “good” historical fiction by not appealing to “modern sensibilities, so that protagonists experience their own societies as though they were time-travelers, noting racism, sexism, religious bigotry, and outmoded beliefs as outsiders, not as people of and in their cultures. ” Ford uses dialect in his novel consisting of racial slurs and comments that would have been used back in the 1940’s. Ford doesn’t accommodate to readers by making the book non-offensive or politically correct.

Ford makes the book historically correct as possible. Thirdly, by MacLeod’s criteria, Ford’s novel is a “good” historical fiction by not “set[ing] aside the social mores of the past as though they were minor afflictions, small obstacles, easy—and painless—for an independent mind to overcome”. This is displayed near the beginning of the book after Chaz, the bully, snatches Henry’s “I am Chinese” pin off of his shirt. While walking away Keiko tries to grab Henry’s hand for comfort, but he pushes it away thinking, “My father would fall over dead… And in town, someone would see us” (23).

Ford made the transition of Henry opening up to Keiko take time; they didn’t become immediate friends. Ford makes sure to make the relationship between Keiko and Henry plausible. They both are ‘scholarshipping’ at an all-white school and met working in the school kitchen, as payment for scholarshipping. Their connection is somewhat immediate, yet their relationship progresses slowly.

Fourthly, according to MacLeod’s standard, Ford’s novel is a “good” historical fiction by not omitting “the less attractive pieces of the past to make . . . arratives meet current social and political preferences”. The 1940’s for the Japanese-Americans were dark times; Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet does anything but omit these facts. From the harsh realities of the hatred between the Chinese and the Japanese displayed between Henry’s father, Henry, and Keiko, to the removal of the Japanese, Ford’s novel spares no “less attractive piece of the past” to make this novel appealing to the average human in this generation. Ford makes sure to put historical fact ahead of the appealing story’s fiction.

Lastly, Ford’s novel is a “good” historical fiction, by MacLeod’s criteria, because It does not imply that “people of another time either understood or should have understood the world as we do now. ” Though Henry and Keiko had an unusual relationship that most Chinese and Japanese children in the 1940’s wouldn’t have had, it isn’t entirely implausible. Think of it like this… The world is always changing, so how does it change? Someone has to be the one to make those changes happen. We don’t have the same view of the Japanese, or any race for that matter, that we did in past generations.

So again, what changed? Obviously Ford’s novel is under the category of ‘fiction’ and the actions of Henry didn’t have this amazing effect of the 1940’s that changed history forever… However, someone’s actions, somewhere in the 1940’s, affected history. This fact makes the relationship between Henry and Keiko, as well as Ford’s novel as a whole, historically plausible. In conclusion Ford’s novel has an overwhelming amount of evidence backing up the hypothesis that his novel is a “good” work of historical fiction by MacLeod’s standard.

Though the end of the novel rewards you with a cheesy, sappy love story ending, something slightly implausible, Ford does his best he can to keep the history in this ‘historical fiction’ factual and true. Over all this novel is a highly plausible, and by MacLeod’s criteria, a “good” work of Historical Fiction. Ford’s novel is also a reminder of the injustice against the Japanese-Americans during the wartime of the 1940’s and cautions us to never let ourselves as a people treat anyone we see as ‘different’ with the prejudice we so easily treated the Japanese with.

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Literary Analysis: "Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet" as a Historical Fiction. (2016, Sep 10). Retrieved from

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