It’s been several days since I finished this superb novel, but the characters and writing are still circulating through my mind. Rindell creates such an incredible sense of time and place that I was completely drawn into the story in a way that I rarely am with historical novels.
The story begins with a federal agent in California in 1943. An elderly Japanese man and his adult son have escaped from the prison camp, and Agent Bonner is visiting their old home to see if he can find any trace of them. Within that first chapter, while Bonner is talking with the current owner of the Yamada’s home, a plane falls from the sky and erupts into flames. From the wreckage two bodies are pulled out – presumably both of the Yamada men. Yet Bonner feels that there is more to the story, and he decides to stick around town and see what he can find…
Meanwhile, Rindell begins to take us back in time, through the 1930’s, giving us background on the Yamadas, on the young man who currently owns their farm (Louis Thorn), and on their complicated relationship involving a family feud, cultural and financial differences, a love for airplanes, partnership in an aerial stunt show, and a young woman whom they both loved.
The majority of the chapters are the backstory, because the backstory is the main story, but Rindell jumps forward to Agent Bonner’s activities just frequently enough to keep us abreast of his investigation. She also does an excellent job of giving us enough information so that every time we joined Agent Bonner, I had a different theory for what really happened in the horrific airplane accident.
Quite a while back I was doing a lot of reading about World War II and was on the lookout for stories set in and around the American Japanese community/Japanese concentration camps in America. It’s a truly horrific time in our country’s history, and consequently one that is frequently glossed over during WWII studies. One book that I read at that time was China Dolls, which is set in California in the 1930’s. One of the characters is actually Japanese, and I was hoping that the book would give me some insight into the setting. Unfortunately, while an alright story, China Dolls lacked any true sense of culture or place. It felt like a story that could have been set in any time period, about girls from any culture.
Thankfully, Rindell’s book was everything I had hoped China Dolls would be, and more. It’s an incredibly engaging story written about characters who feel like real people. I was completely caught up in the story of Louis Thorn, Harry Yamada, and Ava Brooks. I was afraid that the story was going to devolve into a desperate love triangle, but Rindell balances that part of the story incredibly well, making the relationships between the three believable, giving weight and motive to different actions by the three characters. I personally fell in love with all of them. Quiet, thoughtful, poor, hardworking Louis, who struggles between his loyalty to his family and what he personally is beginning to believe is right. Intelligent, dashing, adventurous Harry, who is keen enough to see the writing on the wall and recognize how often he is going to be judged harshly because of his race, but doesn’t let the bitterness control him. Independent, clever, crafty Ava, who decides what she wants and isn’t afraid to pursue it.
The secondary characters are also drawn well. For me, one of the ways to determine that is whether I’m surprised or confused by a secondary character’s actions or not – that is, is this character consistent, or does the author just manipulate them into doing whatever needs to happen in any given scene? In this story, I felt that all those characters were drawn well – the pilots, Ava’s stepfather and her mother, Harry’s family, Louis’s family, Agent Bonner, his landlady, even the sheriff and his deputy – if a person in this book had a name, that person also had enough individualism to be their own character that I could describe.
Pacing in this story is spot-on. While I wouldn’t really call it a mystery or a thriller, there is just enough fog around what really happened in the plane wreck to keep me wondering, even as I watched the complicated ties between the characters develop. Rindell does a truly excellent job at looking at the racism surrounding the American Japanese community, and studying that incredibly strong urge that we all have to find a scapegoat to blame for all our troubles – and it’s especially convenient if that scapegoat looks and acts nothing like ourselves. Parts of this book were consequently genuinely tragic, but I never felt like Rindell was pulling emotional punches just for the sake of making a scene. The tragedies that occurred felt (sadly) inevitable, even while I kept desperately hoping they would turn out differently.
All in all, 4.5* for Eagle & Crane, and I highly recommend it if you enjoy historical novels, or if you are just looking for a truly fantastic story with realistic characters. I haven’t read any of Rindell’s other books yet, but if they are anywhere close to being as strong as this one, I am definitely looking forward to it. This particular book was brought to by attention by FictionFan’s excellent review – as usual, she is far more coherent than I am! – so be sure to check it out.