Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery, World War II
Series: Japantown Mystery #1
Published by Soho Crime on August 3, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's Website, Publisher's Website, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Bookshop.org
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.
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 fiction plot 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.
This story is a reminder that, for all its midwestern friendliness, Chicago is still as Carl Sandburg so famously put it, the “City of the Big Shoulders”, and it can turn a cold, cold heart towards anyone it deems an outsider. It’s why Chicago, to this day, is considered one of the most segregated cities in the U.S., along with the New York City/North Jersey/Long Island metroplex, Milwaukee (which is close to becoming part of greater Chicagoland every day) and Detroit.
The biggest part of this story is about the Japanese-American experience in Chicago during World War II, as seen through the eyes of Aki Ito, a young Nisei woman from California by way of the Manzanar Relocation Center (read as political double-speak for concentration camp) who arrives in Chicago in 1944 with her parents to discover that her older sister Rose died the day before, crushed under the wheels of one of Chicago’s famous “El” trains. Rose’s death is ruled as a suicide, but Aki is determined to prove that her idolized older sister was murdered.
But Clark and Division is not a murder mystery, although it is being promoted that way. And not that there isn’t something to investigate in Rose Ito’s death. But Aki doesn’t so much investigate as obsess and flail around. Rose’s death drives Aki, but the investigation of it does not drive the story.
What does drive this story is Aki’s exploration of and adaptation to a city that does not want either her or her people to become part of it. Except that they are and they have, and Aki’s journey is to discover herself and how she fits into both her own community and this strange and unwelcoming place as she learns to live her life out from under her sister’s long and rather brilliant shadow.
Escape Rating B: It’s hard to figure out where to start with this one, because there were so many interesting parts to this story, but none of them quite gelled into a whole. Or at least not into the whole that I was expecting. Which means I ended up with a ton of mixed feelings about this book, because I wanted to like it and get wrapped up in it way more than I did.
One of the reasons the whole is not greater than the sum of its interesting parts is that there is so much that happens before Aki gets to Chicago, and there’s not enough time or space to go into any of it in nearly enough detail. That the story begins with Aki’s childhood in Tropico, California, where her father is successful and respected is a necessary grounding because it makes the transition to Manzanar and the later move north to Chicago and down the socioeconomic scale all that much more traumatic. But we don’t get enough depth in either of those parts of the story so it compresses the time we have with Aki in Chicago where the mystery is.
Also, the story is told from Aki’s first person perspective and it all feels a bit shallow. Not that she’s shallow – or at least no more shallow than any other woman her age – but rather that we only skim the surface of her thoughts and feelings. Too much of what happens to her in Chicago reads like more of a recitation of what she did than an in-depth exploration of what she thought and felt. Although I certainly enjoyed Aki’s description of working for Chicago’s famous Newberry Library in the 1940s.
The portrait drawn of the Japanese-American community in Chicago during the war years, along with the crimes, both to her sister and to her community, that Aki looks into/flails around at are based on historical events, but the story isn’t enough about those crimes to fit this into the true crime genre, either. Although the parts of the story that wrapped around the history of Chicago were fascinating and I wish the story had gotten into more depth there.
And that may sum up my feelings about this book the best. I wish there had been more depth to the fascinating parts. There are clearly entire libraries of stories that could flesh out this piece of forgotten (willfully forgotten in the case of the “relocation centers”) history. I just wish this had one of them.