A Death in the Family

In Clark and Division, Naomi Hirahara brings the past to life.

clark and division, naomi hirahara
Mayumi Hirahara

Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth.” That remark, attributed to Albert Camus, could have been made about Naomi Hirahara’s Clark and Division. Beginning before the attack on Pearl Harbor and continuing into World War II, the book revolves around the apparent suicide of Aki Ito’s vibrant, “model citizen” older sister, Rose, who steps in front of a Chicago subway train just months after her early release from California’s Manzanar internment camp. There’s more to her sister’s death, Aki believes, but if the mystery of what happened to Rose remains front and center, Hirahara also unflinchingly depicts the injustices the Ito family must endure, illuminating a particularly dark period in the United States’ virulent history of anti-Asian hate and discrimination.

The novel opens in Tropico, the now-lost city between Los Angeles and Glendale where the Ito family once lived. Hirahara describes the town where Aki’s father “and other Japanese men first came to till the rich alluvial soil for strawberry plants” in idyllic terms. On a foray to the Los Angeles River, which has not yet been paved over to prevent flooding, the young narrator observes, “We wandered past the tangles of deerweed, which resembled prostrate women, underneath willow trees where blinding-white egrets rested their elegant limbs.”

Pop, the family patriarch, is an Issei, one of the first-generation Japanese immigrants whose sacrifices paved the way for second-generation Nisei such as Aki and Rose. Eventually, he is promoted to manager at the Tonai family’s produce market in Downtown Los Angeles, which allows the family to live a comfortable version of the American dream, although not without experiencing the endemic racism of the hakujin. At a Los Feliz birthday party, for instance, white mothers prevent Aki from swimming with their daughters.

The family’s existence is upended by Pearl Harbor and the United States’ entry into the war. Within just a few months, their community is forced to sell or abandon businesses, entrust material goods to others, and relocate hundreds of miles. The Itos end up at Manzanar War Relocation Center, which becomes home to 10,000 Japanese Americans.

Hirahara personalizes the experience of internment—in which the United States government sent 120,000 Japanese Americans to de facto concentration camps—by staying close to the Itos. Pop binges on bootleg alcohol; the women in the family grow so stressed that, Aki notes, “our periods, which used to occur at about the same time while we lived in Tropico, disappeared altogether while we were in camp.”

They dare not complain, or criticize the recruitment efforts of the patriotic Japanese American Citizens League—or the organization’s lobbying for Japanese American men to be drafted despite the detention of their families—lest they be removed to a harsher camp. But Rose’s “cool magnetism” gains her acceptance among Manzanar’s Nisei and with the JACL. More important, her demonstrated civic-mindedness and loyalty secure her early release to Chicago, one of the primary cities to accept resettlers. Aki and her parents’ plans to join Rose there lift their spirits throughout the long train trip to the Midwest. All three are crushed when they learn the horrific news.

Aki’s inquiry into her sister’s death takes her deep into the Japanese American enclave around Clark and Division Streets, on what is now Chicago’s Near North Side. There she encounters a diverse community of Issei and Nisei from all over the country. She reconnects with Roy Tonai, whose father owned the market where Pop worked in Los Angeles. Roy becomes one of Aki’s friends, introducing her to residents young and old who have relocated from various U.S. detention camps, as well as to established Japanese Americans from Chicago.

In the community, too, are cross-dressing transplants and small-business owners. There is an underground of nightclubs and dives. Through her job at a library, Aki befriends middle-class African Americans and Polish immigrants. And yet, she also senses that she’s being watched at every turn. In Hirahara’s deft telling, one feels the risk of Aki’s mission of finding out what happened to Rose.

A reporter, editor, and social historian, Hirahara has published 10 previous mysteries, including an Edgar Award–winning series featuring Japanese American gardener Mas Arai. She has also written or collaborated on eight nonfiction books, which address, among other topics, Japanese American doctors in the internment camps, life after Manzanar, and the history of the Southern California Flower Market. Her knowledge of Japanese American culture and history lends authority to Clark and Division without weighing down the mystery or the compelling coming-of-age story of a young Nisei grappling with insidious and persistent emotional and cultural trauma. Aki’s grit, determination, and optimism recall Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs or Charles Todd’s Bess Crawford and make Clark and Division one of the more enlightening World War II–era mysteries in recent memory.•

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Paula L Woods is a book critic, editor, and author of several anthologies and novels, most notably the Charlotte Justice mystery series.
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