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EVERGREEN
by Naomi Hirahara
Soho, August 2023
312 pages
$27.95
ISBN: 1641293594

Many Americans are familiar with the internment of Japanese-Americans in bleak camps during World II. Fewer are aware of what happened to these Americans after they were released from mass incarceration. Naomi Hirahara, who depicted one of the camps, Manzanar, in her Mary Higgins Clark award-winning novel, CLARK AND DIVISION, is back to follow Aki's life post-war and to fill in those gaps for readers.

After the camps and a temporary stay in Chicago, Aki and her family are finally allowed to return home to Los Angeles. But it's not the home they were torn from. The house she grew up in is now occupied by a white family, and Aki's father's business has been taken over by a competitor. They struggle to find a place to live, finally lucky enough to rent a house in Boyle Heights from a Jewish man who can finally move to a better neighborhood, now that Jews are no longer being redlined out of white areas. Their new home is close to the Japanese hospital where Aki works as a nurse's aide, supporting her parents who have a harder time finding jobs. When her husband, Art Nakasone, is finally discharged from the army, her family is complete but their lives and relationships have changed completely.

As the novel opens, Aki treats an elderly man admitted to the hospital who shows signs of having been beaten. To her surprise, she discovers he is the father of her husband's best friend and fellow soldier, Babe Watanabe. She never warmed to Babe, who was the best man at their wedding but managed to destroy their photos of the ceremony. Now she suspects he mistreated his own father. When the old man is later murdered in the sleazy hotel where he lives, Babe disappears, and she suspects the worst. That feeling that only grows stronger when rough men pretending to be cops show up at the door in search of the missing man. Aki wants to protect her family, but she also wants to get to the bottom of things.

Her search for answers takes her throughout the city, encountering discrimination against her people as well as Blacks. Recruited to work at factories for the war effort, they had moved into diverse neighborhoods during the war and are now, like the returning Japanese-Americans, finding themselves displaced. The Ku Klux Klan has a violent presence in the city, as does organized crime. Most vividly, Aki follows a clue to a decrepit trailer camp where less fortunate returnees from the camps have landed, living in squalor.

The theme of displacement, while never heavy-handed, is a thread throughout the story. Boyle Heights, where the Itos have found a home, is a place people of many backgrounds move though in waves. Aki is adjusting to being the chief breadwinner and decision-maker for her household, as her father clings to the unrealistic dream that he will get his business back. Her husband Art is far from his family in Chicago, and even further from those who haven't experienced war; his nightmares keep Aki awake, but he's unable to talk about it. Though he has found work he loves at a Japanese-language newspaper, he makes little money, and when Aki spends time with his worldly colleagues she finds herself embarrassed and out of place. And then there's the missing Babe, whose story emerges bit by bit as Aki digs into the mystery, challenging her assumptions about him.

Hirahara does a remarkable job balancing the domestic insecurities of the Ito household, the unfolding mystery around Babe Watanabe, and bringing the unfamiliar historical moment to life. Though EVERGREEN is deeply researched, readers will feel they are simply there, seeing it all through Aki's eyes.

Having learned so much that is surprising, the author's list of resources appended to the novel will likely entice readers to follow her footsteps into the record of a time too few of us know about.

Barbara Fister is an academic librarian, columnist, and author of the Anni Koskinen mystery series.

Reviewed by Barbara Fister, August 2023

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