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Naomi Hirahara writes of rich history, shocking crime

“Clark and Division” is an engrossing historical novel about a Japanese-American family’s life in Chicago after their time in a World War II internment camp.
Naomi Hirahara's new historical novel is "Clark and Division."
Naomi Hirahara's new historical novel is "Clark and Division." [ Mayumi Hirahara ]
Published Aug. 5

Clark and Division opens with an arresting image of its narrator’s birth in the 1920s. Her older sister, 3-year-old Rose, was so eager for the new baby that she wriggled past the midwife trying to aid the breech delivery and, as “the first one to see an actual body part of mine, yanked my slimy foot good and hard.”

Aki Ito, the narrator of Naomi Hirahara’s new historical novel, repays the devotion. The sisters are close to each other throughout their childhood in Tropico, a small town near Los Angeles. Their parents are Issei, immigrants from Japan; their father starts as a farmer and becomes the manager of a produce market in downtown L.A.

Their life is good, although there are shadows. When Aki is in eighth grade, she’s invited to another girl’s birthday party, then disinvited in the middle of it because the hakujin (white) mothers of other girls don’t want her swimming in the pool with them. When Aki comes home in tears, Rose takes her back to the birthday girl’s home and demands (and gets) an apology from the kid’s mother. “Don’t you let them ever think that they are better than you,” Rose tells Aki.

But in 1941, the attack on Pearl Harbor turns their lives upside down. First there are curfews on Japanese-Americans, and they’re required to turn over all radios and guns to the government. White customers stop shopping at the Japanese-owned market where Aki and Rose’s father works.

Then exclusion orders are issued. Japanese families in California must report for transfer to internment camps, bringing only what they can carry.

Aki drops out of college; Rose and their father leave their jobs. Their home and car are confiscated, and in March 1942 they move into one of the 500 newly-built barracks at Manzanar, near Death Valley.

Rose is first in her family to adapt to and play the politics of camp life, and a year later she’s one of the first Nisei (American-born Japanese) deemed “loyal” enough to to leave the camp. They’re not allowed to return to California but are sent to “the Midwest or East, anyplace that needed cheap labor to replace the men who had been sent to fight overseas.” Many young Nisei men enter the military.

Rose sends her family post cards of Chicago landmarks as she settles in the city, finds a job and looks for a place big enough for all of them, handling the paperwork for their transfer.

Aki and her parents are thrilled to finally board the train for Chicago. But their joy turns to horror when they’re met at the station not by Rose but by two friends from Manzanar.

Rose is dead, struck by a subway car the night before. Even blinded by grief, Aki cannot accept what the coroner tells her: that her sister’s death was “definitely suicide.” Confident, independent, resilient Rose? Aki can’t imagine it, and her own efforts to make a new life in Chicago are twinned with her drive to find out what happened in the time between Rose’s departure from the camp and her death.

Author Naomi Hirahara has written a couple of series of crime novels. She’s published seven books about California gardener-turned-sleuth Mas Arai, who, like Hirahara’s parents, is a survivor of the bombing of Hiroshima. Two of the books — Snakeskin Shamisen and Hiroshima Boy — won Edgar Awards.

Clark and Division, named for a Chicago intersection in the neighborhood where many Japanese lived, is Hirahara’s first historical novel. It’s rich in well-researched details about everything from clothing styles to resettlement organizations to how ice was delivered for the “iceboxes” that preceded refrigerators.

Aki is an engaging and complex character. Only 20 when she arrives in Chicago, she’s naive in many ways and grappling with all kinds of adaptations — to new living quarters, a new job, new friends and, to her shy surprise, potential suitors.

But she’s fierce in her pursuit of the truth about Rose, discovering that the Japanese community deals not only with prejudice but with predators who take advantage of the role of shame in that culture and of the reluctance of marginalized people to go to the authorities, even when they’re victimized.

Clark and Division is an impressive historical novel, but it’s also sadly timely, as we see the old baseless bigotry awakened again among the fearful and the violent.

[ Soho Press ]

Clark and Division

By Naomi Hirahara

Soho Crime, 312 pages, $27.95

Watch

Tombolo Books presents Naomi Hirahara in virtual conversation with author Michael Connelly (The Law of Innocence) at 7 p.m. Aug. 17. The event is free, but registration is required to receive a link, tombolobooks.com/events