Clark and Division by Naomi Hirahara 

4.5 stars, actually.

I think most USAians have heard of the internment camps during WWII where we tore innocent families away from jobs, farms, businesses and forced them to live in terrible conditions (and then required amazing loyalty and volunteering for certain death in the European theater to get out).

But what of after the camps? How did people pick up the pieces of their broken lives? How did folks go on?

What Snow Falling on Cedars did for revealing the racial tension in the Pacific Northwest post-WWII, this book does for the nascent Japanese communities of Chicago. There are zoot suit Japanese, medical students, library assistants, factory workers, and gangster-adjacent Japanese Americans in this book– a much-needed variety of faces to dispel the monolithic stereotype of the model minority. (Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet also gives us insight into the range of Pacific Northwest Asian-American experience of WWII and the collateral damage that resulted)

Aki Ito and her parents have just been released from Manazanar in 1944, and arrive in Chicago expecting to see her older sister, Rose, who had gone before them. Instead, they are met with a fellow released internee, Roy, and told Rose is dead.

Aki must somehow make friends, a life for herself, and navigate the new world of Chicago streets while trying to uncover the truth behind Rose’s death. Aki is an engaging POV, and the world in which she lives utterly unfamiliar to me as a historic period not involving rich and famous people. Her world is populated by folks trying to scrounge a living from nothing, Polish immigrants, black folks treated to similar racist attitudes keeping them from public swimming pools and shops.

Casual details, such as Aki thinking about how the zoot suit boys in the camps had to steal the chains off toilets to achieve the signature look and secret attendance to banned Japanese mutual aid societies are poignant historical details Hirahara brings to the story from her obvious deep research of the time.

Rose was preyed upon by two very different men, and the author’s choice to make some of the evil come from within the community is significant in a way that I haven’t totally processed– once again forcing us to look past the stereotypes to the real and banal ways in which people categorized by race actually embody humanity.

I think books like this one (or the other two mentioned above) should be part of every USAian’s American History experience. We always seem one step away in each decade from a similar human rights violation based on our fear of other’s race or creed.

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