Naomi Hirahara has written a fine first novel in Summer of the Big Bachi. A former editor of the Rafu Shimpo, the bilingual Japanese American daily in Los Angeles, Hirahara has both written an engaging mystery story and examined the lives of the generation of Japanese Americans coming of age during World War II. So Summer of the Big Bachi has transformed the mystery story into a generation’s story.
The hero, Mas Arai, a 69-year old survivor of the A-bomb blast in Hiroshima, works as a gardener in Altadena/Pasadena area just north of Los Angeles. Mas is one of 500 Hiroshima survivors who were born in the United States and then returned to their native country after the war. Mas’s favorite pastime is gambling at the backroom of the lawnmower shop owned by Wishbone Tanaka, a survivor of the relocation camps.
One of Mas’s best friend isTug Yamada, a member of the 442nd , the legendary army unit of Japanese Americans that won an amazing amount of Purple Hearts and Silver Stars for their heroism fighting in Italy. Throughout the novel, more and more of these men’s lives from 1945-1999 are revealed. We learn about their wives, their children, their careers, their hobbies, their close friendships—how they made a life in Southern California. Mas’s philosophy has always been, “[Y]ou can’t blame the Bomb, Accept it, go, and forget.” Mas like his friend Tug is a ultimate survivor who went on to create a rich life after the war.
All these men believe in “bachi” of the title”: if you hurt someone, you soon get hurt in return (what comes around, goes around). There is also a mystery involved two men who came separately from Japan. Both the older man Nakane and the young reporter Yuki Kimura are looking for Joji Haneda who was Mas’s childhood friend in Hiroshima.
Despite not wanting to help either man, Mas sends the young reporter Yuki to the house of Junko Kakita, the mistress of Joji Haneda . Yuki arrives to find the mistress has just been attacked. After the police arrest Yuki as the suspected attacked, Mas tries to investigate seriously. Yuki is alone in California, so Mas steps in as a substitute grandfather to help him. So now we have a traditional crime for this mystery to solve, but some of the clues are 50 years in the past. The novel moves between the mysteries of 1999 Los Angeles and the mystery of 1945 Hiroshima.
As Mas investigates, we learn both what he and his teenaged friends had to do to survive in wartime and occupied Japan Some of the bad guys are the Japanese chauvinists who harassed American-born Japanese in Hiroshima because they had English-language books. Hirahara exames the questions of loyalty to country, to friends, and to self. Another bad guy was teenaged Riki Kimura who sold heroin on the black market when Hiroshima was occupied by the U.S. The novel investigates a further mystery: where does evil reside?
Mas doesn’t think like his friend Wishbone that the world owes him because the Americans locked him up during the war. For Wishbone, the Americans are the evil ones. While Mas sympathizes with the Nisei’s suffering, he feels differently after living through Hiroshima: “Once you witnessed that, you saw evil, and it didn’t live in just Americans or Japanese. It lived close by in friends, in neighbors, and most frighteningly, inside yourself.” Finally, the novel concerns itself with forgiving oneself for surviving Hiroshima and not being able to save one’s friends. Hirahara has transformed the mystery novel into a fiction that searches into the mysteries of life itself. She has written a splendid first novel.