Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet

Author: Jamie Ford

Rating: ** (2 stars out of 3 possible, "B")

Audience: High School

Here is historical fiction that is both intelligent and relational. Set in Seattle's International District, Jamie Ford's first novel is a split-narrative alternating between the WWII years and contemporary (1986) times.

Bullied at his all-white school, Henry Lee is a Chinese youth who befriends a Japanese girl just as West-Coast Japanese Americans are being forced into relocation camps. Ford combines this regional history with a classic coming-of-age story portraying themes of prejudice, duty, honor and devotion.

There are refreshing visits to contemporary times and culture, jazz music and friendship, not to mention the most colorful character of all: Mrs. Beatty the Lunch Lady!

If your high school has Snow Falling on Cedars on it's reading list, suggest Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet as an alternative. Snow is the more consummate novel (better suspense, richer characters, more dramatic plot) but includes too much sex for adolescents. Hotel covers many of the same issues and themes in a purer context.

The American Adventure Series published by Barbour

Titles: over 40 in series, e.g., #1 Mayflower Adventure, #8 Maggie's Choice, #12 American Victory

Authors: various, Colleen Reece, Norma Jean Lutz
JoAnn Grote, etc.

Rating: "D" (0 stars out of 3 possible)
Not Recommended

Audience: 8-12 year olds

These are christianized historical fiction from the 1990s for elementary students that unfortunately "tell" instead of "show" readers what to think and how to feel about the subjects and characters encountered. The plots feel contrived, unrealistic and saccharin and it seems the authors do not trust the readers to come to the "right" conclusions about history, so our hands are held (and forced) all the way.

In one sense they are harmless enough, but because they seem to be lacking in intellectual challenge and not extensively researched I would not recommend this series to my 4th grader unless we could find nothing better on the market. In fact, I think they are no longer on the market except as a repackaged "Sisters in Time" series from 2005.

In preparation for this review I read two titles: #8 Maggie's Choice by Norma Jean Lutz and #12 American Victory by JoAnn A. Grote. If the preceding paragraphs aren't specific enough for you, I'll provide more critical details below.

Maggie's Choice takes place in the 1740's during the time of The Great Awakening and also touches on the issue of slavery. I found some details not accurate to the time period (an upper class aristocrat would not encourage 12 year old girls to call her by her first name), as well as poor transitions and weak dialogue. (Again, "telling" instead of "showing.") Plot twists seemed contrived: Maggie's father has wealth because a step-grandfather deeded him a house and money "by a strange twist of fate." (Also not a common practice of the time.) Finally, simplistic faith conversions cast doubt on the legitimacy of the history: "My brother took Ann and me to a revival meeting last week. And now I know God loves me and Jesus died to take away my sins." True, faith was simpler in those times, but could the author be a little less obvious?

The American Victory was somewhat better. Taking place at the end of the Revolutionary War, one of the main characters states "God has been with us, helping us in this war. He gave us a great military leader in George Washington." Fair enough. The book provides a decent history of Cornwallis's ill-fated retreat and surrender and again credits "the Lord's help." Fair enough, although I think Cornwallis should take at least some of the blame. Finally, a quote: "Kings have too much power. The only king we want in America is King Jesus!" I doubt many colonists embraced such a statement.

I'm not looking for politically correct, revisionist history for my kids, either, but I would like something that is more balanced. I would recommend Jean Fritz' histories (And then What Happened, Paul Revere? What's the Big Idea, Ben Franklin?), David Adler biographies or even the American Girls over this series. Perhaps if our kids also read a more liberal version (Don't Know Much about History by Kenneth C. Davis) they could come to their own less biased understanding of history.

Historical fiction has pitfalls. In an effort to make history interesting and keep younger readers engaged, authenticity may be sacrificed. I purchased a small collection of children's biographies a few years ago (Childhood of Famous Americans), but I'm hoping my 5th grader will be ready for David McCullough soon!