Tuesday, August 31, 2010

If You Live In a Small House by Sandra Park

This story takes place on the island of Oahu in the early 1950’s before Hawaiian statehood. The heart of the story lies with a large, multigenerational Korean-American family living under one roof – immigrant grandmother and grandfather, mother, father, children, Auntie and Uncles. The story bears the traces of war fatigue from post World War II and the Korean War and deals with what those conflicts did to a population fighting an enemy that looked like them in different uniforms.

The book is not so much a self-contained novella as a series of vignettes and scenes, each written in beautiful language. The final scene is a powerful re-telling of the Hawaiin Tsunami and it certainly derives some of its power because of the reader’s new-found knowledge of Tsunami.

The author starts the Tsunami sequence by describing the picnic or party feel the Tsunami warning gave. Oahu’s inhabitants travel into the hills and enjoy the hospitality of their neighbors, like Mr. Casella, who serves his spicy chili and Mrs. Casella who makes sweet chili for those who prefer it. The warning continues for two days and many no longer take it seriously. Then, in her typically languid language, the author paints the following scene where the reader can only read in horror, knowing what will happen:

A clear mile of the bay’s floor was exposed; it was a strange sight that no one could compare to anything in memory.

On the wet stretch of sand, fishers were flopping everywhere. Ruts and ledges of sand, colorful rubber slippers here and there, seaweed clumped like gelatinous trees or light green and matted like air, piles of pocked gray-white rocks, smooth green glass, shells that looked like ordinary gravel, and bits of trash that looked like precious jewels. Word spread and a few people ventured out to see for themselves. There were many who were tired of waiting. Earlier feelings of dread were overrun by boredom. Among the restless, there was no expectation that waiting any longer would make a difference. Every passing hour added credence to their suspicion that endless waiting was for fools. The sky was clear blue. Bird were silent, out of sight.

By noon, it looked like the day before, people everywhere. A wave of people rushed from the highest hill to the bottom of the sea. Adults behaved like children, pointing and laughing.

Everyone wanted to start a collection. The bay turned into a concourse of opportunity, crawling with treasure hunters. There were more fish and ono seaweed than anybody could possibly gather. Buckets and wheelbarrows were not big enough to hold the harvest. Separating collectibles from garbage was exhausting guesswork, an impossible predicament of what to keep, what to throw away. People were picking through the littered expanse, relentless in their efforts, driven by the unforeseen opportunity. A bow-legged woman said that someone found a wedding ring with a diamond as big as a tooth. Radio broadcasts continued to issue warnings.

On a hill overlooking the bay, Mr. and Mrs. Casella were sitting in their kitchen, listening to the radio. Fly me to the moon and let me play among the stars. Mrs. Casella was secretly in love with Ol’ Blue Eyes. She poured a cup of coffee for her husband. She made more coffee for the people still camped on their lawn.

When the wave train came, it rolled forward at over two hundred miles per hour.”

This scene was by far the most powerful in the book and it’s probably the largest and most complete of the vignettes. Since the story doesn’t have a primary point of view character and is written almost as narrative nonfiction, plot is not the novella’s strongest point. However, if you’re interested in Hawaii or the 1950s, or if you're interested in detailing this time period to a classroom, this book's detailed, vivid portrayal of everyday life in Oahu is worth your time.