Southland, Nina Revoyr, Akashic Books, 2003, 348 pp
Several months back the World's Smallest Reading Group gained a third member who renamed it the Tiny Book Club. Because all three of us have come to California fairly recently, ie since the 1990s, we decided to read some fiction set in our adopted state. Southland was the perfect novel to begin our new project.
The story ranges from mid WWII, when Frank Sakai was sent with his family to the Japanese internment camp of Manzanar at the age of 15, up to 1994, the year Frank died. We learn Frank's story through the eyes of his granddaughter Jackie Ishida, a third year law school student, who is helping her aunt carry out Frank's will. In the course of learning about this man who was beloved to her, Jackie finds herself and grows from an emotionally frozen young woman into someone capable of opening up to others and to love.
This is not a mushy love story though. It is well done historical fiction and I learned about the origins of the Crenshaw district of Los Angeles where Frank grew up and lived for all of his life. The area is now pretty much a ghetto. Originally a rural area where inhabitants grew wheat and barley and hunted rabbits and squirrels, it was called Angeles Mesa. Those inhabitants were Blacks from the southern states and Japanese immigrants, living side by side in relative harmony. News to me!
Then came World War II, the camps for the Japanese, the postwar industrial and economic growth of Los Angeles, the Watts riots in the 1960s, and the destruction, fires, and racial tensions that were called the Rodney King riots in the early 1990s. Those second riots occurred within a year of my relocation to LA.
Through all these changes, Frank lived in the Crenshaw district, worked, owned a corner store, and had hardly an enemy. He also loved, made the mistakes of a young man, and paid dearly for them. As Jackie penetrates some of the mysteries of Frank's life and of her own heritage, she gets drawn into solving a murder that took place in Frank's store during the Watts riots.
It is a great read and though the author juggles several story lines and time periods, not to mention the racial and cultural tensions of those times, it never felt like she had overloaded the story. In fact, the story of Los Angeles is a loaded one, far more complex than its Tinsel Town image, and therefore far more interesting.
(Southland is available in paperback and eBook by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)