Naomi Hirahara’s Novel is Historical Fiction is a Compelling Mystery Thriller
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
I met my first Nisei, Irene, when I was a freshman at the University of California at Davis. I enjoyed Irene’s quiet manner, kind heart, and listening ear, and I offered the same to her. When she told me once, “That would be difficult,” I didn’t know it meant, “No, thanks.” I later realized that I came off as pushy when I issued the invitation a second time. After graduation, our friendship continued through her studies at Hastings Law School in San Francisco. I often made the 40-minute drive to her apartment in San Francisco. And later, I visited Irene’s new home in Sacramento and met her spouse and child. A set of earthy-red bowls, with covers, were her present to me when I married a man whose grandmother came to Hawai‘i from Korea as a picture bride for plantation work. I’ve used those lovely soup bowls for the miso soup I’ve made, both in California and during our six-year stint in Japan. Irene formed my first image of a Nisei.
Manzanar and Chicago, 1941
Naomi Hirahara’s novel, “Clark and Division,” widened my vision. If you’re looking for an absorbing book to give to a friend or relative in the holidays, this is it. It gave me a full window into history, a nuanced view of immigrants and their young adult offspring, and enticed me with compelling mystery.
The first 29 pages of the novel paint the life of an Issei couple, the Itos, and their two daughters, Rose and Aki. Despite prejudice and economic changes, they thrived in Southern California and worked a produce market at the time of the Pearl Harbor blasts eight years ago. Racially-prompted fears toward Japanese descent bring about the shameful internment of tens of thousands of loyal residents, including the Itos. I’d read about the internment previously, but entering into the life of a specific family opened my soul to the atrocities of this time. The Ito family must leave behind most of their property, never to be recovered. Even their car, which brought them to the barbed wire of Manzanar, is confiscated by the military police.
How the family makes it through this terrible year and the toll on them is rendered with specific, accurate and complex period details. Certain Japanese terms are nicely inserted, with their meaning and inadequacy at times. We hear that in Aki’s voice here:
Mom, whenever she remembered he life in Kagoshima, spoke about kurou, which could be translated to “suffering.” But the English word seemed to skim the surface, whereas kurou went deeper. It referred to a guttural moaning, a piercing pain throughout your bones (p. 100).
Hirahara also creates lovely depictions of characters and location. Later, when Aki is a newcomer to the Chicago library where she wants to work, she thinks:
The guard directed me up an impressive staircase. . . . After sleeping in dilapidated wooden barracks and suffering through sandstorms, I couldn’t quite reconcile that I was inside a place like this . . . she consulted with her co-worker, a black woman carrying a stack of books, her glossy hair arranged into two rolls atop her head. She wasn’t shy about giving me a once-over either (pp. 82-83).
The difference between being an Issei and a Nisei is also dramatized as Aki often flaunts her parents’ norms and chafes at their restrictions.
On Page 30, the story switches to Chicago, and a ticking bomb is set. The thriller commences. The older daughter, Rose, has been released from the camp and takes a job in Chicago, where government authorities are gradually transferring those interned. When Aki and her parents arrive months later, they find Rose dead. Her death occurred at the subway station the book is titled after. Aki cannot believe it is truly a suicide, though the police assume so. In unorthodox and risky ways, Aki undertakes to unravel the mystery of why her brave and strong sister is dead.
Again, Hirahara has bolstered her crime thriller with research and insights into the corruption of Chicago police of that period. Rose cannot rest until she learns the true story of her adored sister and her life in Chicago. Despite the reluctance of her sister’s friends and acquaintances to reveal their knowledge, Aki forges on, jeopardizing her relations to Nisei friends and acquaintances. Yet, she’s rewarded with an intimate understanding of Rose’s courage and hardships. A measure of justice occurs.
I’m not a fan of history as it is taught in the classroom, yet I loved learning about events, systems and persons of this time through this well-documented and exciting novel. If you like Ann Perry’s novels set in Victorian England, Sue Grafton’s alphabet murder mystery series, or Tony Hillerman’s books set in Navajo territory, you’ll like Hirahara’s writing too. Beware: it might keep you up late reading as it did so for me. It may ingrain in you a few Japanese words or explode bland stereotypes simmering underneath.
Carol Park explores geographies, internal and external, from California environs to mazes of Japan. Her fiction appears in The Ravens Perch, The Harpoon Review, Birdland Journal, Shark Reef, the Antarctica Journal, Red Wheelbarrow and several anthologies. Read her words at CarolPark.us.