By Naomi Hirahara; reviewed by Jeannette Hartman
Most of us don’t really see them.
But author Naomi Hirahara does. Her character Mas Arai is one of them.
At 70, Mas is in the twilight of his life. But these are hardly golden years. His wife is dead of stomach cancer. Their daughter Mari is married to a Caucasian man and pregnant, facts she’s never shared with her father.
Mas’s gardening business has been eroded by Hispanic mow-and-blow guys. His money-making clients have shrunk down to Mrs. Witt, who tells him she plans to sell her San Marino mansion and move closer to her daughter in Colorado Springs.
The summer of 1999 is about to become the summer of the big bachi, which in Japanese means payback or karma.
Mas’s life begins to twist out of synch when a Japanese investigator claiming to work for the Japanese government, Shuji Nakane, shows up at Wishbone Tanaka’s lawn mower shop seeking information on Joji Haneda. Haneda supposedly died in Hiroshima in 1945, but now is suspected of being alive in Los Angeles.
Hirahara leads readers back and forth in time and across the Pacific between Hiroshima and Los Angeles. Mas’ family came from Hiroshima. He was born in California but returns to Hiroshima with his parents and siblings in the late 1920s.
As tensions between the U.S. and Japan build, Mas finds himself living as a citizen of an enemy nation in Japan, where he looks like everyone else. He is there when the bomb falls on the city on Aug. 6, 1945. When he returns to L.A. several years later, he is treated like an enemy alien, when he is, in fact, a native son.
This is one of the many ironies Hirahara weaves into her excellent mystery. As she writes about Mas and the mystery of Haneda’s identity and whereabouts, she vividly presents the variety of Japanese experiences in the U.S. before, during and after the war. This includes families who left America to return to Japan; Japanese families that were sent to internment camps; young Japanese-American men who joined the U.S. military to prove their loyalty to America; and those who became conscientious objectors, refusing to fight for a country that deprived them of their civil rights.
Hirahara has a keen eye for L.A.’s neighborhoods and prose that is a joy to read. Take this description for example:
“Gardena was a cigarette burn below downtown Los Angeles. At one time, Mas knew, the Japanese had multiplied in Gardena like mold on month-old leftovers. Now most of them, or least their children, had moved south to cozy neighborhoods next to clean shopping centers and sanitized parks. The older and poorer ones had stayed behind, like passengers on a run-down boat. But the food was still good and cheap, and old gamblers still frequented local coffee shops. In other words, it was Mas’s kind of town.”
THE SUMMER OF THE BIG BACHI is the first book in the Mas Arai series. It was followed by:
- GASA-GASA GIRL (2005)
- SNAKESKIN SHAMISEN (2006)
- BLOOD HINA (2010)
- STRAWBERRY YELLOW (2013)
- SAYONARA SLAM (2016)
- HIROSHIMA BOY (2018)
In addition, Hirahara wrote a series featuring 23-year-old Japanese-American Los Angeles Police Officer Ellie Rush, which includes MURDER ON BAMBOO LANE (2014) and GRAVE ON GRAND AVENUE (2015).