On the shelf
“Clark and Division”
By Naomi Hirahara
Soho Crime: 312 pages, $ 28
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Just as only James Ellroy could have written the Los Angeles Quartet and only Walter Mosley could have incorporated the Black Angelenos’ experiences into the secrets of the Easy Rawlins, crime writer and researcher Naomi Hirahara was destined to write Clark and Division.
“So much of my work is shaped by current events and little-known stories,” says Hirahara on a warm summer morning during a video call. “While my previous series included cold cases where the past was unearthed to solve the current crime, ‘Clark and Division’ is actually my first real historical mystery.”
This week, Clark and Division is releasing an extensive crime saga from a little-known historical episode – the relocation of Japanese Americans interned from places like Los Angeles to the heart of Chicago during World War II.
Hirahara, an engaging presence with a swirl of graying dark hair and pink transparent glasses, spent a decade as a reporter and editor for Rafu Shimpo, the Japanese-American daily in LA, struggling to make amends for the government concentration camps during the war . It was also during these years that she began an award-winning seven volume series starring Mas Arai, a Japanese Issei (first generation) gardener and Hiroshima survivor whose background is a tribute to her father. It followed with another series with a LAPD bicycle policeman.
Hirahara has never stopped being a journalist, however, writing or co-writing eight nonfiction books on cultural history that range from the flower markets of downtown LA to the Japanese-American community that once thrived on Terminal Island. One of her collaborators was Heather C. Lindquist, editor and interpretive exhibits developer for the National Park Service. After working on an exhibition together, in 2018 they co-authored Life After Manzanar, a document on detention and relocation that brought Hirahara back to long-simmering ideas.
Naomi Hirahara’s new novel is “Clark and Division” about Japanese American internees who were transferred to Chicago.
Her excitement bubbles over the screen and Hirahara asks if I would like to see her PowerPoint deck explaining the basics of Clark and Division, which she first developed for a writing workshop at Occidental College. “After seeing this beautiful PowerPoint [Newbery Award winner] Cynthia Kadota showed during a book discussion together that I thought it would be fun to look at the pictures. “
Her hand-drawn cartoon illustrates the city of Tropico, a once thriving enclave that has almost been lost in history, on a slide. “Perhaps 30 years ago,” recalls Hirahara, “I had an interview with a Japanese-American doctor in the San Fernando Valley who told me that he grew up in Tropico, which I had never heard of! Only this one fact and how I loved the sound of that word, Tropico, stayed in the back of my mind. “
Hirahara shares the results of the following research – photos of early 20th century Japanese farmers crouching in fields. Nestled between Glendale and what is now Atwater Village, Tropico was the place where many Japanese Angelenos settled in the early 20th century. It became the home of the Itos, the family at the heart of Clark and Division: Pop, who worked as a manager at a Japanese grocer; Mom, a housewife; elder daughter Rose, an outspoken beauty; and her little sister Aki, a Los Angeles City College student who considered herself second fiddle.
It was a solid civil life, and it was interrupted when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. In March 1942, the family was shipped to the Manzanar War Relocation Center, about 300 kilometers north of Los Angeles. Perceived as an “exemplary minority” in the camp, Rose is selected as one of the first of 10,000 Japanese Americans to be forcibly relocated to Chicago. The Itos follow later.
A photo from the Bancroft Library served as inspiration for Hirahara: a resettled family looks in disbelief at their lonely suitcase, which was unceremoniously placed in their new Chicago apartment. “In their official photos, the War Relocation Authority was happy to showcase those images of the Japanese in which the Japanese were happy and smiling, very neat and respectable,” says Hirahara. “In my novel, I try to remove some of that sheen, that mask, not to deny that people took part in the official photos, but that it wasn’t the whole story.”
The Itos thought their settling in Chicago would be easier because Rose went ahead of them and found a job. But it wasn’t like that. The family arrives by train only to learn that Rose has been hit by a subway car at Clark & Division station.
When Aki, now 20, decides to investigate her sister’s death, Clark and Division becomes a complex mystery, a coming-of-age romance, and a compelling glimpse into a previously unexplored corner of American history. In his attention to the consequences of internment, crime novels like James Ellroy’s “Perfidia” or David Guterson’s “Snow Falling on Cedars” are light years ahead that gloss over the experiences of Japanese Americans in favor of characterizations that flatten their humanity and meet the author’s needs. Especially “Perfidia” hits a nerve with Hirahara.
“I appreciated Ellroy’s rhythm of speech and the general themes,” she says. “But let’s imagine the reality – the thick layer of oppression that prevented Japanese Americans from becoming public school teachers or police officers. How did people adapt, survive or even succeed in such a climate? At least from my point of view, that is the more interesting study. “
“Clark and Division” puts Japanese-American characters at the center of the story – and the crime. To say more would diminish the joy of delving into Hirahara’s heartfelt, meticulously researched story. Everything is true, from the description of Manzanar to the Ting-a-ling Candy Shop, a real store that once stood on the corner of Dearborn and Division Streets in Chicago.
Behind these descriptions, invisible to the reader, hide archive photos, family albums and ephemera, some of which Hirahara bought on eBay. They opened up a world bigger than any other story she describes for the author as she moves through the slides of young men in zoot suits and pompadours. “All sorts of people, mostly young people, have been resettled in Chicago – from the camps, from Father Flanagan’s Boys Town in Nebraska, from orphanages like Manzanar’s Children’s Village. And despite the war, internment camps and resettlements, they wanted to live, have fun and just be young. “
The vivid characters, story, and aura of determined optimism that permeate the novel make it feel like the beginning of a saga not unlike Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs Mysteries. Hirahara seems surprised at the comparison; their ambitions are even more hesitant. She first thought of Clark and Division as a mystery in its own right. In all of her research and travel, she said, “Since I don’t live there, I asked myself: Could I adequately describe all of the complexity of Chicago in the 1950s? I was much more confident when I wrote about a close neighborhood. “
Fans can relax: “Clark and Division” is the first of at least two books about the Ito family and their intrepid daughter Aki. “With the Mas Arai series, which was seven books, I thought I was just writing one book and said to myself, ‘Wow, that’s interesting,’ and just kept going,” says Hirahara. “So we’ll see what happens.”
Woods is a book critic, editor, and author of the Charlotte Justice crime novel series.