Naomi Hirahara offers historical fiction and intrigue in her 2021 book Clark and Division. The time is the middle 1940s, which means that the story begins in Manzanar, one of the many World War II Japanese internment camps. As the Ito family considers leaving the camp for Chicago, their older daughter Rose heads to the city first. The book is a believable mystery combined with the realities of life for Japanese Americans after leaving the internment camps. It’s also the story of Aki Ito, a young Japanese American woman, determining the circumstances around her sister Rose’s death.
When Aki and her family arrive in Chicago, they discover Rose recently died. Of course, the family is quite upset. But Aki can’t accept the police’s perspective that her sister took her own life. And the revelation that she recently had an abortion upsets Aki even more. She decides to unravel the story, hoping for a more palatable truth. As with most mysteries, it’s not that simple.
First, Aki and her parents must adjust to life in downtown Chicago. Many fellow internees have also made their way to the city, so there’s a burgeoning Japanese American community with practical support. But interactions with the hakujin, or non-Japanese people, are generally uncomfortable. The Ito family came from a small town outside Los Angeles, and a big midwestern city is also different culturally. It’s a life where interactions are often fraught with complicated social requirements.
Aki is plucky and determined. She digs into the people and places in Rose’s life, often treading heavily into things she should approach more delicately. Part of this behavior is a result of her personality. She also exhibits considerable youthful brashness. But her persistence pays off in the end, and Aki finds answers. Still, the story illustrates that the truth is often difficult to swallow.
The US government forced internees to abandon their homes and often their hard-won businesses. And despite this injustice, these families created new lives for themselves after the camps. Like the Ito family, many chose to move inland rather than return to their west coast communities.
Combining this with commentary on the restrictions all women faced at that time is strangely relevant to today’s world. The abortion-related aspects of Rose’s experience are a jarring reminder of what happens when reproductive care isn’t a legal option. Hirahara blends the two stories into the lives of Rose and Aki, while also exploring aspects of Japanese American traditions and culture.
The story seems designed for young adults, partly because of Aki’s naiveté. However, every reader will learn plenty of details about Japanese American life in the post-WWII era. Some elements will enrage and upset you. But the way second-generation, younger Nisei succeeded against all odds also inspires readers.
I appreciated the way Hirahara sprinkles Japanese words throughout her narrative. Interestingly, they are primarily in Aki’s thoughts and her family’s interactions at home. As my husband explains, the former prisoners didn’t want to identify as Japanese to the general American public. He knows this because his own parents purposely never taught his generation Japanese.
My interest in this period and Japanese American history is personal because of my in-laws’ experience. Curious readers will learn plenty about these first and second-generation immigrants and their travails. On the other hand, Hirahara’s writing is fairly simplistic and feels forced in some places. So my recommendation here is more about the book’s content than its style.