Southland by Nina Revoyr
In the wake of the Margaret Seltzer faux-gangster memoir scandal last month, novelist Denise Hamilton wrote a column for the Times recommending a book to wash away the bad taste of that whole mess: Understand This by the wonderful Jervey Tervalon. The book focuses on the lives of eight teens living in South Central Los Angeles, and is, Hamilton writes, "as haunting and painful and tough and tender and true as Seltzer's memoir is false."
Alongside Tervalon's book, I'd also suggest Nina Revoyr's Southland, which captures an altogether different, and seldom examined side of South Central -- its history as one of Los Angeles's first racially mixed neighborhoods.
The book's main character is Jackie Ishida, a fourth generation Japanese-American woman whose parents' drive towards assimilation and upward mobility have effectively divorced her from her family's past. Though she's a UCLA law student and her parents are doctors, her grandfather, Frank, owned a grocery store in the Crenshaw district and raised his children there until the 1965 Watts riots.
When Frank dies in 1994, Jackie discovers an old will among his papers, leaving the store to Curtis Martindale, a man she's never heard of. A little investigation leads her to Curtis's cousin, Jimmy Lanier, who gives her some shocking news. Curtis Martindale was one of four African-American boys found locked in Frank's walk-in freezer after the riots. The murders were never reported to the police, since the neighborhood's beat cop, a white officer who frequently brutalized the black and Japanese residents, was seen leading the boys inside the store. Jackie and Jimmy decide to put together enough evidence to bring a case against the white officer, and begin tracking down people from the old neighborhood.
Revoyr intertwines this search with flashbacks spanning six decades, and told from a variety of character POVs. We see the Japanese-American interment camps of World War II and the segregation that exists for black workers in the Long Beach shipyards. But we also see the Family Bowl, frequented by Japanese and African-American Crenshaw district residents alike, and racially integrated neighborhoods where people are genuinely neighborly.
Revoyr doesn't view the past idyllically, but she's able to see a brief moment in time where Los Angeles could have moved in a much different direction. Here, and in her equally terrific The Age of Dreaming, she provides devastating historical accounts of racial prejudice in Los Angeles's sometimes white-washed past.
Although I've come to Revoyr's writing only recently, I can't recommend her enough. She's too good to miss.