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North Idaho’s “Our Region Reads” opens old wounds, for the better.

click to enlarge Mary Lou Reed
  • Mary Lou Reed
One of the most shameful interludes of American history occurred in my lifetime — and I experienced it first-hand. My mother took me to visit a Japanese internment camp in Tulelake, Calif., when I was a child. Although she didn’t say, I like to think she took me to show her disapproval of the confinement of these fellow Americans. I’ll never forget it.  

Recently, that sad chapter was brought back to the forefront of our North Idaho consciousness as a part of the “Our Region Reads” program. For years, North Idaho readers have looked longingly across the Washington border at Eastern Washington’s annual Spring Get Lit! celebration. Now we can belly up to the book bar with the best of ‘em.

Supported by a grant from the Idaho Humanities Council, and under the sponsorship of North Idaho public libraries, the aims of the program are modest: to get as many people as possible reading the same book, as many people as possible discussing the same book and lots of people attending programs scheduled around the book’s theme.

Let’s face it: We may need to be goaded into learning, but after we actually learn something, we like to talk it out.

The book chosen for this first year, The Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, was written by Montana author Jamie Ford. The fictional story is set in Seattle and revolves around Henry, a young Chinese-American boy, teased and bullied by classmates in the elite private school he attends. His only friend, Keiko, is a young Japanese-American girl. The year is 1942, and America is on the brink of war with Japan.

The world of these two young students is upended by the forced evacuation of Keiko, her family and the entire Japanese-American community of Seattle into internment camps throughout the West.

Although the characters are fictitious, their experiences reflect the actual unforgivable treatment inflicted on Japanese-Americans who lived on the West Coast of the United States — imprisoned by their own government. The internment camps, surrounded by prison wire and government guards, were very real.

Ford’s story vividly recaptures the ugly prejudice that white Americans in the 1940s held toward immigrants of any color. It also reflects the actual anti-Japanese fervor that ran rampant following the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor and the entry of the United States into World War II.

Jamie Ford’s book vividly recaptures the ugly prejudice of the 1940s.

I certainly recognize the wisdom in a community review of these very hard-to-believe moments in our nation’s past. Rather like recalling our dirty little secrets, it’s better to examine them than to hide from them. We are reminded that one of the causes of war is misdirected hatred. We are also reminded that hatred is frequently aroused and manipulated to fuel further support for war.

Not only is it important to remember history so that mistakes won’t be repeated, it’s also important to remember history in order to take note of its ironies and successes measured in public progress.

PROGRESS: It’s been a long time since I heard a disparaging word about anyone of Asian ethnicity. Bigotry is not gone, unfortunately, but in half-a-century it’s been pushed out of the mainstream through education and integration.

Another theme of the book is bullying, and it’s truly progress to point out that today’s school administrators have declared war on bullying. Although bullies are still being born and bred, the name-calling and bullying that the students in The Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet experience is openly discredited in today’s school buildings.

Though I seldom say anything positive about the Republican majority in the Idaho Legislature, I commend the appearance of a stiff anti-bullying measure, Senate Bill 1105, which has passed the Idaho Senate.

Let’s hope it makes it through the House by adjournment time.

IRONIC TWIST: Following the flood of sympathy that has flowed back to the people of Japan after the tragic March 11 earthquake and tsunami, it’s hard to believe that there was once a time when such fierce enmity could have blinded our nation’s sense of right and justice toward its own loyal citizens of Japanese descent.

Headlines scream of the danger from a meltdown of the crippled nuclear reactors at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant. The irony is painful to absorb. Sixty-six years after the United States dropped bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a nuclear nightmare is once again threatening the fate of thousands of Japanese.

BOOKEND: Over 180 people crowded into the Coeur d’Alene Public Library Community Room on Wednesday evening, March 16, to hear Jamie Ford, the author of Hotel at the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, talk about his book. A sea of hands went up when Mr. Ford asked how many had read the book. Questions and comments flowed like wine.

CONCLUSION: Despite the stirring of painful memories, or perhaps because of the stirring of painful memories, the first year of “Our Region Reads” has been a definite success story.

Mary Lou Reed is a former Idaho State Senator who lives in Coeur d’Alene.

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