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Book author gets warm reception in Cloquet

Author Jamie Ford's visit to the Cloquet Public Library last Thursday was enlightening and fun, even for those who hadn't read his "Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet."...

Jamie Ford
Author Jamie Ford speaks at the Cloquet Public Library last Thursday. Jana Peterson/jpeterson@pinejournal.com

Author Jamie Ford's visit to the Cloquet Public Library last Thursday was enlightening and fun, even for those who hadn't read his "Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet."

The majority of the 50-plus audience members, however, had read Ford's debut novel, which was selected as this year's pick for One Book, One Community, an annual program that encourages a regionwide read of a book.

When asked how many were reading the New York Times bestseller with their book club, nearly every person in the Cloquet library meeting room raised a hand.

"This isn't my normal book event," Ford said to the Thursday morning crowd in Cloquet. "Normally it's something like a bookstore on a Tuesday night and I'm going head-to-head with 'Dancing with the Stars.'"

True story. He did a book signing in Washington state, near his cousin's home. His cousin apologized for not coming, but told Ford that Tom DeLay was "dancing the cha-cha" that night and he couldn't miss it.

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"That was my humble moment from the road," Ford said.

With his debut novel, Ford wanted to write a love story and to cover a period of American history that doesn't get much mention in text books.

"Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet" is both. It is set alternately in the mid-1940s, when Japanese families are being shipped off to internment camps, and the mid-1980s, when the belongings they left behind are discovered in the basement of the Panama Hotel on what was once the edge of Seattle's Japantown. The story is propelled by the deep friendship and innocent romance between Chinese-American Henry Lee and his classmate, Keiko Okabe, a Japanese-American.

The novel started as a short story based upon a pin his father wore during World War II that said "I am Chinese." It was meant to deflect abuse from Americans who were taking out Pearl Harbor rage on their Japanese neighbors. Ford was encouraged to flesh out these ideas into something novel-sized.

The character Henry Lee is a scholarship student at an almost all-white school and gets bullied regularly. Adding to the alienation: His parents have recently enforced a no-Chinese rule and he is allowed to speak only English, which they don't understand. Keiko Okabe joins him as a scholarship student and they become friends bound by an interest in the local jazz scene. When he finds out about the relationship, Henry's father disowns him.

The friendship thrives even when Keiko and her family are sent to an internment camp. Henry stores some of the family's prized photographs for them, and the rest of their possessions are packed into the basement of the hotel.

Forty years later, Henry is newly widowed and has a college-age son with whom he struggles to communicate. When Henry sees a red parasol come up from the basement of the Panama Hotel, he's reminded of Keiko.

Christa Lawler of the Duluth News Tribune contributed to this story, because Jana Peterson has not (yet) read "Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet."

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