When it comes to historical fiction, there’s one moment in history that seems to capture the pens of writers more frequently than others. Our shelves are packed full of books that take place during or around World War II, and I know that there’s so many that it might seem overwhelming. If you’re looking for […]
Naomi Hirahara is known for her Edgar Award–winning Mas Arai mystery series — which is to say, the Edgar honor is a mystery writer’s seal of approval. In addition, Hirahara established her voice in the nonfiction world with 2018’s Life after Manzanar. Put these two worlds together and we get Clark and Division. A novel that deftly combines the tragic history of the United States along with a truly engaging mystery. This work moves and will move you. More than Edgar Awards are in line for this book.
Set in 1944 Chicago, Edgar Award-winner Naomi Hirahara’s eye-opening and poignant new mystery, the story of a young woman searching for the truth about her revered older sister's death, brings to focus the struggles of one Japanese American family released from mass incarceration at Manzanar during World War II.
Chicago, 1944: Twenty-year-old Aki Ito and her parents have just been released from Manzanar, where they have been detained by the US government since the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, together with thousands of other Japanese Americans. The life in California the Itos were forced to leave behind is gone; instead, they are being resettled two thousand miles away in Chicago, where Aki’s older sister, Rose, was sent months earlier and moved to the new Japanese American neighborhood near Clark and Division streets. But on the eve of the Ito family’s reunion, Rose is killed by a subway train.
Aki, who worshipped her sister, is stunned. Officials are ruling Rose’s death a suicide. Aki cannot believe her perfect, polished, and optimistic sister would end her life. Her instinct tells her there is much more to the story, and she knows she is the only person who could ever learn the truth.
Inspired by historical events, Clark and Division infuses an atmospheric and heartbreakingly real crime with rich period details and delicately wrought personal stories Naomi Hirahara has gleaned from thirty years of research and archival work in Japanese American history.
About the Author
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Rose was always there, even while I was being born. It was a breech birth; the midwife, soaked in her own sweat as well as some of my mother’s, had been struggling for hours and didn’t notice my three-year-old sister inching her way to the stained bed. According to the midwife, Mom was screaming unrepeatable things in Japanese when Rose, the first one to see an actual body part of mine, yanked my slimy foot good and hard.
“Ito-san!” The midwife’s voice cut through the chaos, and my father came in to get Rose out of the room.
Rose ran; Pop couldn’t catch her at first and when he finally did, he couldn’t control her. In a matter of minutes, Rose, undeterred by the blood on my squirming body, returned to embrace me into her fan club. Until the end of her days and even beyond, my gaze would remain on her.
Our first encounter became Ito family lore, how I came into the world in our town of Tropico, a name that hardly anyone in Los Angeles knows today. For a while, I couldn’t remember a time when I was apart from Rose. We slept curled up like pill bugs on the same thin mattress; it was pachanko, flat as a pancake, but we didn’t mind. Our spines were limber back then. We could have slept on a blanket over our dirt yard, which we did sometimes during those hot Southern California Indian summers, our puppy, Rusty, at our bare feet.
Tropico was where my father and other Japanese men first came to till the rich alluvial soil for strawberry plants. They were the Issei, the first generation, the pioneers who were the progenitors of us, the Nisei. Pop had been fairly successful, until the housing subdivisions came. The other Issei farmers fled south to Gardena or north to San Fernando Valley, but Pop stayed and got a job at one of the produce markets clustered in downtown Los Angeles, only a few miles away. Tonai’s sold every kind of vegetable and fruit imaginable—Pascal celery from Venice; iceberg lettuce from Santa Maria and Guadalupe; Larson strawberries from Gardena; and Hale’s Best cantaloupes from Imperial Valley.
My mother had emigrated from Kagoshima in 1919, when she was in her late teens, to marry my father. The two families had known each other way back when, and while my mother wasn’t officially a picture bride, she was mighty close. My father, who had received Mom’s photograph from his own mother, liked her face—her strong and broad jaw, which suggested she might be able to survive the frontier of California. His hunch was right; in so many ways, she was even tougher than my father.
When I was five, Pop was promoted to market manager and we moved to a larger house, still in Tropico. The house was close to the Red Car electric streetcar station so Pop didn’t need to drive into work, but he usually traveled in his Model A anyway; he wasn’t the type to wait around for a train. Rose and I still shared a room but we had our own beds, although during certain nights when the Santa Ana winds blew through our loose window frames I would end up crawling in beside her. “Aki!” she’d cry out as my cold toes brushed against her calves. She’d turn and fall back asleep while I trembled in her bed, fearful of the moving shadows of the sycamore trees, demented witches in the moonlight.
Maybe because my life started with her touch, I needed to be close to her to feel that I was alive. I was her constant student, even though I could never be like her. My face was often red and swollen, as I was plagued by hay fever from the long stalks of ragweed that crept into every crack of concrete near the Los Angeles River. Rose’s complexion, on the other hand, was flawless, with only a dot of a mole on the high point of her right cheekbone. Whenever I was near enough to look at her face, I’d feel grounded, centered and unmovable, less affected by any change in our circumstances.
While Rose was surrounded by admirers, she kept her distance just enough to be viewed as mysterious and desirable. This was something we learned from our parents. Although we were thought well of by other Japanese Americans, we were not indiscriminate joiner types, at least before the war. In school, our classmates were mostly white and upper-middle- class kids who attended cotillions or Daughters of the American Revolution events, activities that were off-limits to us. There were about a dozen Nisei offspring of florists and nursery operators—smart, obedient boys and immaculately dressed girls, who Rose remarked “tried too hard.” Rose’s style was effortless, and when she wasn’t home, I’d shed my plaid dress and secretly try on her signature outfit—a white blouse, long knit khaki skirt and a thin lemon-yellow sweater, a color that most Nisei girls would avoid wearing. I’d study myself in the full-length mirror on the door of the wardrobe, frown at how the skirt bulged at my belly; it was also much too long, falling down to my ankles but covering my thick calves. And that shade of yellow made my own skin look sallow and sickly, further confirming that Rose’s clothes were not for me.
When I wasn’t in school, I spent time in Tropico going on long walks with Rusty. In those early years, we wandered past the tangles of deerweed, which resembled prostrate women, underneath willow trees where blinding-white egrets rested their elegant limbs, and heard the high-pitched song of the Western toads, which reminded me of the buzz of hot electrical wires. This was before the Los Angeles River flooded, causing the city to fill the riverbed with concrete. Afterward, we still heard the toads, but they weren’t as loud.
I wished that my teen years could have been spent outdoors alone with my dog, but my growing up involved being around other people my age. As I didn’t have that many opportunities to socialize with the hakujin girls outside of school, when I was invited to do so, it was a momentous occasion. One day in eighth grade, Vivi Pelletier, who sat next to me, handed me an invitation to her pool party. It was handwritten on off-white stationery with scalloped edges. The Pelletiers, who had moved to Los Angeles from Europe, were rumored to be connected to the movie studios. They lived in the Los Feliz Hills and were one of the first families in the area to get their own pool.
I held on to that invitation so tightly that it was moist when I showed it to Mom, who wondered if I should go. It would be a high-tone hakujin affair, and who knows how I could end up shaming the family. I was known to make faux pas, like running around with a stain on my shorts because my menstruation pad had shifted during an undokai, a sports event in Elysian Park for our Japanese-language school.
And then there was the matter of my swimsuit. I had an old striped cotton swimsuit whose fabric sagged around my oshiri, making me look like I was wearing diapers. That suit was good enough for Japanese potlucks at White Point, not far from the fish canneries on Terminal Island, where close to two thousand Issei and Nisei lived. It would not do, though, for Vivi Pelletier’s pool party.
“Just let her go,” Rose told my mother. “I’ll take her to get a new suit.”
We went to the dry goods store in Little Tokyo on First Street. Their selection was limited, but I found a navy blue one-piece that covered my ample buttocks.
I brought the folded suit in a bag with my present, a bath powder puff set, which I thought was appropriate for a girl originally from France. I had never attended a party for a hakujin girl and carefully watched all the guests so that I didn’t make any serious mistakes. Quite a few mothers were also in attendance but I was relieved I had come alone. Being the only Japanese, Mom would have felt awfully out of place, and Rose would have been bored out of her mind.
We had finished eating egg salad sandwiches with the bread crusts cut off when Vivi’s mother pulled me aside into a room she referred to as the salon. I feared that I had done something wrong again.
“I am so sorry, but can you come some other day to go swimming with Vivi?”
Did Vivi’s mother think that I had come unprepared? “I have my swimsuit in my bag.”
“No, no dear. That is not the problem.” Mrs. Pelletier had wide-set eyes and a high forehead, which made her look like one of the forest animals in Disney’s Snow White.
I finally figured it out. It was like Brookside Park in Pasadena; the mothers didn’t want me to go into the pool with their daughters.
I fled out the front door without saying goodbye to Vivi. I was a long downhill walk, and my body shook as I stomped on the asphalt.
When I let myself into our back door, Rose turned from the dress pattern she and Mom were cutting at the kitchen table. “Why are you home so early?”
I couldn’t help but to burst into tears, and relayed what had happened.
“I told you not to go,” Mom murmured in Japanese. When she felt slighted by her Issei friends, fellow immigrants from Japan, her anger would manifest itself like a hot streak, but when it came to hakujin men and women, my mother became deflated, half believing what they thought about us.
Rose was not having it at all. “I didn’t waste an afternoon shopping for nothing,” she muttered. She demanded that I go with her to confront Mrs. Pelletier. I tried to resist, but as usual I was overpowered by my sister, who dragged me to the car. When she insisted on something, my whole family eventually went along with it.
Rose pushed on the Pelletiers’ doorbell multiple times in rapid succession. On the doorstep, she cut a striking figuredress cinched at her tiny waist and her skin almost glowing. She didn’t even give Mrs. Pelletier a chance to say hello. “Did you invite my sister to your pool party and then tell her not to go into the pool?”
Mrs. Pelletier’s face turned beet red. She tried to excuse herself by saying that it was fine with her, but her guests were uncomfortable. “Aki is welcome to come and swim at any other time,” she said.
But Rose, as usual, didn’t back down. “This is unacceptable. You owe my sister an apology.”
“Oh, dear, I am so sorry. Truly I am. I am new to America.”
But we’re not, I thought.
Rose didn’t make any speeches about racial equality or anything like that. We remained silent on the drive home. I went to sleep early that night and after sundown she climbed into my bed and wrapped her arms around me. Her breath smelled sour from the takuan, Mom’s prized pickled radishes, from our dinner. “Don’t you let them ever think that they are better than you,” she whispered in my ear.
The next Monday, Vivi, looking embarrassed, returned my bag with my folded bathing suit and a card in the same off-white stationery, probably a thank-you for my birthday gift. I barely acknowledged her and threw the bag in the hallway trash can without opening the card.