This was a really nice book, and a great opening for Hawaii! It’s not only the story of Spencer taking care of his dying mother, it also tells the story of how he unexpectedly went from being the middle son to being the only son. The childhood flashbacks take place in the 1950s and 1960s, and describe life on a Maui sugarcane plantation during that time.

I am reading my way across the USA–5 or so books set in each state, with an emphasis on those where the setting becomes another character, or where we learn something about the geography, history, and/or people of that state. We are just starting Hawaii.

Language plays an important part in this novel. Like many of the books on our list, this one uses a pidgin dialect in the dialogue among those born in Hawaii.

“No sense only give up,” [I say.] She shakes her head. “My parents teach me for accept.” “Old style, that. Accept this, accept that.” “Maybe,” she says, caught between the ideas of two generations. But that has always been my mother’s predicament. Her parents spoke Japanese, and her children spoke English. My mother has told me she feels fluent in neither. … I, too, am a person of two languages: the oral and the written. Pidgin, the language of my childhood, inhabits my voice, and my lifelong love of reading lives in my writing. When I must speak textbook English, my mind visualizes the written words and forwards them to my mouth.

While this example is between Spencer and his mother, Spencer uses this pidgin when he talks to other Hawaiians in the military, both on base and during his time in Vietnam, not just with his family.

However, since finishing this book, I’ve been reading Shark Dialogues by Kiana Davenport, set on several islands (Oahu, the Big Island, and Moloka’i), and the pidgin used in that book seems very different:

“Dat missin’ fingah on yoah tutu‘s hand, from pineapple sliceah at Dole Cannery. You know how many years she punched time clock at dat evil place? You know foah why? So could send yoah mot’ers private Catholic school, so dey no turn out gum-chewin’ whores on Hotel Street. Dis da truth, foah shoah!”

It will be interesting to see whether this is a function of each author’s perception or reflects differences between the islands or between the classes or cultural heritages of the speakers. Spencer and his mother’s pidgin sounds more like the pidgin of a Japanese ESL speaker–English spoken with some of the rules of Japanese. But not all of the people that we see speaking it in Middle Son are of Japanese heritage. Likewise, there are several of the characters in Shark Dialogues who are of Japanese heritage–which form do they speak? You can expect a continuation of this discussion throughout our reading of Hawaii!

Spencer also explains the Japanese-Hawaiian names for each generation of immigrant, which I found helpful.

My parents taught me to refer to these first-generation immigrants as Issei. It is almost as if their identifying characteristics–age, preference for Japanese language, adherence to traditional customs–have blended into one man, one woman, and been given a name. The second generation, first to be born on Hawaii soil, we call the Nisei. My parents were born amidst the rows and pungent smells of sugarcane. … I am of the Sansei generation. We are the dreams of our parents, dreams scarred with the thorns of cane leaves and pineapples. My own children are Yonsei, and with each generation, we lose more tradition. My daughter Teresa does not care for rice, and I find this disturbing.

The mention of rice, here, while quite funny, is something Spencer comes back to later when discussing the cultural differences between himself and his haole (white) wife–and the source of marital arguments.

Conversely, several years passed before Caroline accepted that I was the family expert on rice and wanted to eat rice with all my dinners, no matter the menu. “But we’re having spaghetti,” she protested early in our marriage. “Who needs rice with spaghetti and garlic bread?” “Me,” I said, washing the rice. “That will be three starches,” she reasoned. “Nobody needs three starches at one sitting.” “Without rice,” I said, “the meal is only a snack. I want dinner.” As we ate dinner that evening she asked, “Why’d you cook so much rice?” “In case you like some,” I said.

I’m noticing some overlap between the books so far–I wasn’t expecting Middle Son to cover the sugarcane plantation life, and had chosen All I Asking For Is My Body by Milton Murayama to cover that aspect of Hawaiian life/history. And Shark Dialogues has plantations as well. (It also has the Moloka’i leper colony, which I wasn’t expecting either, but that’s a story for another post!) In one of the reviews for the Murayama book, which is set in the time leading up to World War II, I saw a comment about the widespread Japanese-American internment, implying that this occurred in Hawaii as well. It will be interesting to see whether Murayama (or Davenport!) concurs, but Iida says it wasn’t really the same in Hawaii as on the mainland.

Unlike the Americans of Japanese ancestry in the U.S. mainland who were systematically interned without rights, the government left most of the Hawaii sugar workers alone. Approximately one percent of Hawaii’s population was interned, however, and most were grabbed from their homes the night after the Pearl Harbor bombing. Japanese-language newspapers were ordered to stop printing, and the threatening news traveled up and down the rows of cane fields. Our Buddhist reverend was interned in that huge sweep of December 7, 1941, and my parents watched from their darkened home as the FBI took him away.

I guess the government figured the sugarcane workers were pretty contained as it was, and didn’t want to interfere with the sugar supply. I’ve just reached this timeframe in Shark Dialogues, so I’m sure to learn more.

In some of the books we’ve read for this challenge, the food really becomes an important part of the setting. It seems to vary by state–it was really important and prevalent in New Mexico and Georgia; not so much in Indiana and Minnesota. In Middle Son, we have the intersection of the importance of food in Japanese culture and in Hawaiian culture, from the significance of rice and chopsticks and eating round rice balls instead of triangular ones, to the celebration of luaus and food items like poi and manapua.

Dishes of miso soup, shrimp tempura, pork tofu, asparagus, and lychee are arranged on the far side of our plates. My mother has already scooped the rice into my rice bowl. “No take too much lychee,” she says, as if I’m a naughty little boy who will eat only fruit for dinner. My mother does not know that I am indifferent to lychee, that I have not craved the fruit for many years. She only knows it was a childhood favorite of mine, and I can guess that she asked all around the neighborhood to get it for me.

Of course, there is sugarcane on the plantations, but there are also pineapples, mangoes, and avocados, which Spencer says they called “pears” and used for playing war (“Back then, I didn’t know of a single human being who actually ate avocados”). And the ginger plants which they used to make whistles.

One surprise for me was the mix of ethnicities among the plantation workers in Hawaii. I knew about the large number of Japanese immigrants, but I hadn’t really been aware of some of the other populations.

Ethnic groups differed at the various plantations in Hawaii, and ours included, by descending population, Japanese, Filipino, Portuguese, Chinese, Puerto Rican, and Hawaiian.

The Portuguese and Puerto Rican in particular surprised me. What didn’t surprise me, however, was the exploitation of the plantation workers.

My grandfathers worked the cane fields of Wainoa. They had planned to return to their homeland after completing a three-year contract, and I wonder how many days they hoed beneath relentless sun before realizing they could never accumulate enough money for a proud return to Japan.

There is some discussion in Middle Son about some of the labor disputes, but there is much more in Shark Dialogues, which also relates some of the changes over time from manual labor to machine-assisted labor. (Shark Dialogues covers such a broad span of time that Davenport can mention some of those changes.) I’m not sure why it surprised me, but I was somewhat disturbed by the descriptions of the workers–and their children–being sprayed with DDT along with the sugarcane.

The smells of cane were those of dirt, poison, and smoke. In its prime, the field smelled of dirt. In its death, smoke. Between, there were the smells of poison. On some of those occasions, the plantation sprayed our neighborhoods along with the cane fields. A truck slowly drove up and down the rows of our camps as it sprayed DDT from a huge canister. … I ran nervously in circles, knowing what that meant. “I no like,” I called to my mother. “I no like.” “No can help,” she said. “Need for kill bugs.” She gathered Taizo and me into a circle. “Close eyes.” The fog of poison passed through our open windows, beneath our doors. I closed my eyes tightly. I couldn’t hold my breath long enough and had to inhale. I could taste the poison in the back of my throat, and my mouth watered. I swallowed once, twice.

In several of our previous posts, we’ve discussed the writing technique of showing instead of telling, and Iida does a wonderful job with this. (In the following passage, “one” is pidgin for the article “a.”)

“The baby one boy,” she said with a strange gentleness. “Yes, one boy.” “Sorry, Mariko.” “Not your fault,” my mother told her and tears fell from her cheeks to her baby’s. Auntie returned to the bed and they hugged for a long time, the baby pressed between them. Mom and Auntie cried long, deep sobs with arms wrapped together. Taizo and I looked at each other, puzzled. I couldn’t understand who was comforting whom. Now, more than forty years later, I still do not know.

I don’t want to give too much of an explanation, because it would involve a bit of a spoiler, but this is a wonderful bit of dialogue between the sisters-in-law that tells the reader quite a lot about the arrangement, without actually saying very much at all.

There are some wonderful examples of how different Hawaii is from the mainland, like this memory of Hawaiian children learning how to identify the seasons from a standardized test booklet:

I heard the long-forgotten voice of my second-grade teacher. She was trying to define the characteristics of winter to thirty confused children. “The clues are in the illustrations,” she was saying. “For example, the falling snow means you must check the box marked winter.” I found the illustration of snow on my practice test and tried to connect it with the idea of winter. Beside me, Ed Kimura raised his hand and said, “Get one picture here with big rain. Not winter?” “Absolutely not,” the teacher said. “Remember, this will be a standardized test. Rain means spring.”

And there are some wonderful examples of how we are all the same, no matter where we are from, like this example where Spencer defuses a tense racial situation during his military training.

I wished I could escape, and the desire connected in my memory to the day Mr. Okamoto caught me stealing mangoes. Then, too, I had wanted to escape, and it was Taizo who had found the courage to lead me away. I had thought my brother brave, but what had he known of worlds without sugar cane, without rice? He had measured me so eagerly against our fields of cane. … What, I wondered, had Ole measured himself against? … “When I was small, the sugar cane grew all around. My older brother and me would try to see which was more tall–the sugar cane or us. You ever did that? You ever measured yourself against something?” “The corn,” he said, squinting. “It grew taller than me at a different time every year, all depending on the rain. You ought to come and see the corn in August.”

The others join in, offering their own answers–a wall in the kitchen, a big brother, or a tree–and just like that they are all the same.

I also really enjoyed the descriptions of the photographs Spencer takes where he really captures the subject’s character, like this one of his old nemesis, Mr. Okamoto:

“Let me take your picture.” “My picture?” I spoke deliberately. “I know you. I can take your picture better than anybody. Get out of the car and come over here.” Curiously, he obliged. “Go where?” he said, coming around the front bumper. “There,” I said, pulling the camera from my duffel bag. “No need do anything. Just look at the camera.” I knelt so that he’d be forced to look down, a physical manifestation of the man’s character. He appeared unnaturally large from my position, the way he appeared when I was a little boy with mangoes in my shirt. His chin shaded the sunlight from his neck and emphasized the grim jut of his jaw.

And this one of his imperious, demanding father:

That evening I took Dad’s photograph as he ate from his rice bowl. I was able to proceed slowly, shifting angles, studying the light, because he easily ignored the camera. One hand held his rice bowl beneath his chin, while the other hand guided chopsticks into the bowl, lifting the rice to his mouth. Each time he lifted the chopsticks from the bowl, the rice balanced in a tiny pyramid on the way to his mouth. When I took the photo, I spotted a grain of rice on the edge of my father’s lip that I thought might flaw his dignity. Later I considered retouching the photo, but in the end I left the dangling grain of rice upon his lip. I was still childish enough to hope that someday my father would see the photo and the rice would bother him.

Looking back through my notes and highlights, I don’t see many physical descriptions of Maui or Oahu. The sugarcane fields are always present in the sections of the book told from Spencer’s childhood, and yet the descriptions are scattered–given in a word here, or a phrase there. A few words about the “Maui Snow”–the ashes from the sugarcane, which is burned when full-grown and ready for harvest. The vivid but short mention of a six-inch centipede that bit him as a child, or the dead ones they found after the pesticide was sprayed.

Overall, this was a wonderful read for Hawaii, and I came away with strong impressions of Maui. I tried to read Shark Dialogues first, but was finding it difficult. Middle Son by Deborah Iida was much more accessible from the get-go, and allowed me to ease into the pidgin and the plantations before getting thrown into the lush settings that Davenport describes! I think Shark Dialogues will end up being my favorite Hawaii book, but if you find yourself having a little trouble with it at first, or don’t want the entire span of Hawaiian history, Middle Son is highly recommended!

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