Naomi Hirahara: Evergreen

Japantown #2

The follow up to Hirahara’s spectacular Clark and Division finds the Ito family, released from detention camp and the follow up resettlement in Chicago, back in 1946 Los Angeles.  After the Japanese were sent to camps, their homes and businesses were taken over, and they’ve returned to try and build up their lives again.  Our heroine, Aki, works as a nurse’s aide and is waiting for her husband Art to return from the war.  She and her parents have found a small home to rent which the two couples will share.

If the first novel was about Aki’s discovery of herself and her own personal strength after the death of her beloved sister, Rose, the second novel is about how she and Art, as newlyweds, are learning to live together and adjust to their new reality.  Art has left home and family back in Chicago where he and Aki met, and the Itos are adjusting to post war, post camp life, with all that entails.  Someone else lives in their former home.  Mr. Ito’s business is gone and he wants to reclaim it.  Meanwhile, Art is recovering from the trauma of war.  He and Aki aren’t communicating too well, and it’s causing problems.

One of the flash points in their relationship is Art’s war buddy, Babe, who earned Aki’s eternal distrust by dropping the camera full of their only wedding photos.  He’s in Los Angeles, and Aki encounters him in the hospital, where his elderly father has been brought in, covered with bruises.  Aki suspects Babe.  When the father later turns up dead and Babe disappears, Aki decides to pursue it on her own, without telling Art.  Art is busy with a job at the Japanese newspaper, the Rafu Shimpo, based in LA (the paper is still in publication today).

Aki feels uncomfortable and uneducated around Art’s friends, who are a mix of liberal journalist types, and she’s determined to solve this puzzle.  The lack of communication between the newlyweds has its consequences, however, making the scenes between the couple some of the most painful of the novel.

Also painful, however, are the many stories of the hard working Japanese men and women who live is horrible circumstances as they try and find a footing after the war.  The descriptions of some of the hastily created trailer camps where Japanese were forced to live is truly horrifying, and it turns out that Aki, during her investigations, is able to step up as a nurse and help out a few of the folks she encounters.

The portrait of the racism and discrimination endured by the Japanese (who are sharing their former areas of town with African Americans who have relocated to LA), made me think after I closed the book that racism is the essential crime and tragedy of our country.  It’s tentacles are everywhere.  While Hirahara has not written a polemic, she has written a social justice novel, illuminating a part of our history that’s difficult to read about, but essential to our knowledge of our country.  What makes it a novel are the characters – Aki, Art and Babe are all finely drawn and unforgettable.  The moral ambiguity faced by her characters makes them human, and to me, more believable.  Hirahara is a wonderful writer. — Robin Agnew