Nisei murder mystery enthralls readers



By Naomi Hirahara (Westminster, Md.: Soho Press, 2021, 312 pp., $27.95, hard cover) 

From the first few pages of the new Naomi Hirahara historic mystery “Clark and Division,” I am immediately drawn into the story of the young Nisei woman, Aki Ito. The descriptive narrative with rich historic details and the strong emotional vantage of the characters quickly establish the relationships and setting. At the onset, we witness the birth of Aki delivered by a midwife as her toddler sister Rose tugs on her foot and refuses to leave. When Aki fears the Santa Ana winds and she crawls into bed with her older sister Rose, we feel the assurance of their bond. “Maybe because my life started with her touch, I needed to be close to her to feel that I was alive. . . 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.” 

Through Aki’s eyes, we experience early life in Tropico, an LA suburb, where she and her sister attend a predominantly white high school. Rose, beautiful, elegant and confident, stands up for Aki when she is shunned at a pool party of her white classmate. To see the school play that Rose had first swooned about then later dismissed, Aki sneaks into the back of the auditorium. She is miffed to not see her sister’s name in the playbill as the lead in which she was first cast and lets the usher know. Despite the ostracism they face, the sisters hold their heads high and look out for each other.

During the mundane years at Manzanar, Aki bides her time and volunteers as a nurses’ assistant while Rose continues to flourish at the center of social activities. With leave clearance from the Manzanar concentration camp, Aki and her parents travel to join Rose in Chicago where she had found work and housing a few months earlier. Searching for Rose in the crowd, they are greeted by family friend Roy Tonai and shockingly discover that Rose had died the night before in a subway accident. With this tragic beginning, Aki often finds herself at the verge of tears or spurts of anger but musters up the courage and composure to find out the truth. She refuses to believe that her sister’s death was a suicide. 

Set during the post-war resettlement era, when Japanese Americans sought work where they could, were instructed to disperse, not congregate, and warned of the hostile environment, “Clark and Division” fills a void in our community history. The pre-war and post-war experiences that shape an individual’s character are often missing in our collective history. Hirahara’s non-fiction writing and research provides a solid framework for connecting these links.

Hirahara masterfully weaves the story as Aki follows the path of her sister, encountering friends of Rose, and the places she frequented near “Clark and Division.” Along the way, Aki’s tenacity builds, friendships and a new relationship with Art Nakasone, a Nisei from the South Side of Chicago evolves, and she finds her bearings.

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