Jamie Ford’s debut novel, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, was historical fiction about the love and friendship between a Chinese-American boy and a Japanese-American girl in Seattle and during the internment in World War II.
In this book, Ford returns to the theme of a relationship between a Chinese-American boy and a Japanese-American girl in Seattle, this time during a period for the most part bracketed by the two Seattle World Fairs, the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition in 1909 and the Seattle World’s Fair in 1962. The story goes back and forth in time, as did Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet.
When this story begins in 1962, Ernest Young, now in his 60’s, is preparing to be interviewed by one of his two daughters, Juju, a reporter for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer newspaper. Juju has convinced her editor to let her write a then-and-now piece about the grand opening of the new world’s fair, seen through the eyes of those who happened to attend the original Alaska-Pacific-Yukon Expo in 1909. Her father is one of those, and she discovers to her astonishment that it is he who was the subject of a 1909 article she found about a young boy auctioned off at the Fair. [This part is based on a real-life story, although the boy named Ernest was an infant at the time; in this book, Ernest is 12 when the auction occurs.]
Juju wants to know his story, but Ernest has secrets he doesn’t want her to know. Moreover, he is dealing with his wife Gracie’s memory loss. But Grace’s memory, perhaps spurred by Juju’s questions, seems to be coming back, and she herself contributes to part of the story for Juju. The doctor told Ernest this could happen: “the human body is a marvelous work and a wonder.”
Ernest explains to Juju that he left China as a 5-year-old during a time of war and famine. He was taken by an “uncle” [what we now call a “coyote”] to America to be sold. On the boat, he was put into a holding area with other children. One of the young girls, Fahn, was Japanese, first sold to China, and now being sold again. She was around three years older than he was. Nevertheless, he impulsively told her “I’m going to marry you.” She replied, “I am sorry. No one will ever marry us.”
Ernest ended up in Seattle, living in a series of boarding houses. No one adopted him; “he wasn’t Chinese enough for an Asian family and wasn’t white enough for a Caucasian home.” He was “sponsored” however by a Mrs. Irvine, a “crusader for virtue,” a cold woman who found offense in everything she saw. She told Ernest she wanted him to train to be a custodian. When he said he wanted to go to another home instead, she decided to auction him off at the Alaska-Pacific-Yukon Expo “for a good cause.”
The winning ticket was held not by a family as Ernest had hoped, but by Florence Nettleton, a.k.a. Madam Flora, of the Tenderloin Bordello. She intended Ernest to be their houseboy doing odd jobs.
To his surprise he ran into Fahn there, working as a scullery maid. It had been seven years since they came over together on the ship, but she recognized him and asked, “are you still going to marry me?” Fahn and everyone else assured him the Tenderloin was a wonderful place to work, and it was. Madam Flora took in castaways and gave them jobs. [The story of Madam Flora seems to have been modeled in part on the real-life madam Lou Graham, who was a famous madame in Seattle. In addition to running her lavish, high-end brothel, she contributed a great deal of money to the education of the city’s children.] Indeed, without Madam Flora, Ernest told Juju, “I might have wound up as a street kid, eventually sent to a poorhouse, or a reform school that was more like a jail, or worse….” And most importantly, “If I didn’t end up in the Tenderloin, I might never have met your mother.”
Ernest was immediately drawn to Fahn, but also to Maisie, another young girl with an unknown status at the house. Maisie told Ernest, “We’re like a big happy family at the Tenderloin; Fahn and me are like Irish twins.” She clarified that Madam Flora was her mother, although Flora told everyone Maisie was her younger sister, because having a child was “bad for business.”
But Madam Flora was suffering from the advanced stages of syphilis, and had more and more days where she was losing contact with reality. To pay for her treatment, Miss Amber, Flora’s managing partner, decided that Maisie must have a “coming out” party. This took place when any of the girls destined to be “upstairs girls” turned 16; these virgins were auctioned to the highest bidder. Everyone was upset about it, but Maisie loved her mother and coped by rationalizing “it’s only one night.”
To Ernest’s astonishment, Fahn was upset that Maisie was picked instead of her. She wanted to be an upstairs girl, and Ernest was appalled. Fahn, angry over the rejection, ran off to a lower class brothel.
Ernest was emotionally overwhelmed; he was in love with both Maisie and Fahn, and now it seemed both of them were destined for a life he wouldn’t wish for them.
On top of the other problems, women like Mrs. Irvine, opposed to the idea of “immorality” in any form, were getting more successful. [In 1909 in real life, newly elected Seattle Mayor John F. Miller, in part as a response to the constant marching of more and more women, ordered the “disorderly houses” in Seattle’s red light districts closed. Miller endorsed “the purpose of segregating vice and the establishing of a thoroughly regulated district as the best practicable means at hand of dealing with the social evil.”] The Tenderloin received notice it was being shut down. Tragedy ensued all around.
At one time Maisie had told Ernest, “My theory is that the best, worst, happiest, saddest, scariest, and most memorable moments are all connected. Those are the important times, good and bad. The rest is just filler.’” Or as Ernest was told by “Professor True” who played the piano at the Tenderloin, “There are people in our lives whom we love, and lose, and forever long for. They orbit our hearts like Halley’s Comet, crossing into our universe only once, or if we’re lucky, twice in a lifetime. And when they do, they affect our gravity.”
Ernest finds all of this to be true.
Evaluation: This author has a knack for constructing beautiful love stories while at the same time seamlessly filling in historical details of bygone eras. The issues he explores, like poverty, prostitution, cultural clashes, decency, and devotion, are well treated, and add depth and poignancy to his stories. This is an excellent book.
Published by Ballantine Books, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House, 2017