Evergreen by Naomi Hirahara

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Evergreen by Naomi Hirahara front cover

Canada and the United States both share a dark period of history that happened during World War II. Citizens of Japanese descent were ordered to give up their homes and businesses and sent to live in internment camps with harsh living conditions. In 2021, the Edgar Award-winning Japanese American crime fiction author Naomi Hirahara introduced Aki Ito and her family in the book Clark and Division. The book focused on their time in the Manzanar internment camp in California and subsequent release and relocation to Chicago. In her new book, Evergreen, it is 1946 and the Ito family have returned to California.

The setting of Los Angeles is critical to Evergreen. Even though the family is returning to their home city, nothing is quite the same. Other groups have moved into Japantown and its surrounding neighbourhoods. Businesses have been taken over by competitors. The place that they were homesick for no longer exists. Hirahara does a great job conveying that sense of loss. Through her descriptions, we feel the sadness of seeing strangers living in their old house and frustration with those who have taken over their businesses.

Hirahara also creates moments of hope and solidarity. There is a touching exchange between Aki and a potential landlord who happens to be Jewish. It is a small but powerful moment in the book. The characters form a connection that feels honest and genuine. One of the strengths in Hirahara’s writing is her ability to create these subtle but meaningful flashes of humanity that will stay with you after you finish the book.

When the story opens, Aki has found employment as a nurse’s aide at the Japanese hospital. She is still living with her parents. Her husband, Art Nakasone, is a soldier whose return is anticipated. While at work, Aki meets an elderly patient who is covered in bruises. She suspects Mr Watanabe is a victim of elder abuse. Imagine her surprise when she discovers that the patient’s son is her husband’s best friend. Art and Babe Watanabe met and bonded in boot camp before they were shipped overseas. Aki can’t understand why Babe is back and Art is not home yet.

Babe is not the only person that Aki met in Chicago who has relocated to LA. While working at a vaccine clinic for children living in a hostel, she encountered Hammer. He came across as a petty criminal and loner in Chicago, although he appears to be turning over a new leaf in LA. Hammer has a girlfriend and wants to become the legal guardian of his younger half-brother. Although Aki met both Babe and Hammer in Chicago, the men don’t really know one another.

Aki is overjoyed when Art returns home but the army has changed him. He now smokes, and although he suffers nightmares he refuses to share the trauma of the War with Aki. She learns that Babe was discharged early and had been hospitalised in the Pasadena Regional Hospital. Once again, Art avoids talking about what happened overseas. He eventually finds a part-time job at Rafu Shimpo, a Japanese newspaper that is still published in Los Angeles and which the author Naomi Hirahara used to edit.

Soon, Mr Watanabe is back in hospital, this time with a gunshot wound. When he dies on the operating table, the hospital is unable to contact Babe to notify him of his father’s death. Aki volunteers to track him down. Because of her earlier suspicions about Babe she also wonders if he is responsible for his father’s death. When some men who identify themselves as LAPD show up at their house looking for Art and asking about Babe, Aki becomes even more determined to find Babe and to figure out who is responsible. She convinces Hammer to help her out.

Aki’s search for the truth broadens her view of the world and increases her self-awareness. Aki is the main character in Evergreen and the story is told from her perspective, which may not always be accurate. Hirahara does a great job in giving depth to her characters. She creates living, breathing individuals who are impacted by their life experiences and those around them.

It is apparent that Hirahara did extensive research while writing this book. She manages to weave in other significant events that were happening in post-war Los Angeles and America, bringing history to life through her tales of Aki and her friends and family. It feels natural as the character-driven plot unfolds. Evergreen is a wonderful example of historical crime fiction. It is a crime story that reflects the social injustice that happened to Japanese Americans.

Soho Crime

CFL Rating: 5 Stars

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