A historical novel set in Hilo, Hawaii in 1935 and centers around the Japanese community there. The story follows Daniel, a young doctor who returns after a brief trip to the mainland United States. There is not much of a plot, rather the book mostly revolves around Daniel rediscovering his family’s past and reconnecting with various people in his life, including his uncle Koji, his ex-girlfriend Maile, and other members of the community. He gradually unravels the mystery surrounding his father’s disappearance during his childhood, and piece by piece, he uncovers his family’s history.
The Japanese immigrants who came to Hawaii were promised good work, but they found themselves in the sugar cane plantations, which formed the backbone of Hawaii’s economy at the time. They discovered instead grueling and repetitive labor in the sugar plantations, owned by a small group of wealthy white people who brought in laborers from various Asian countries, such as China, Japan, and the Philippines. The plantation owners intentionally kept the different ethnic groups separated to prevent them from uniting and organizing a strike. Despite the hardships, the Japanese community in Hilo established a fish market which did quite well.
The backdrop of the story is the eruption of Mauna Loa, a volcano that occurred in December 1935 and lasted for approximately three weeks. When Daniel first returns home, the first thing he sees is the volcanic eruption. The volcano’s lava flow produces anxiety around whether it will destroy Hilo, and this anxiety mirrors the characters’ personal anxieties about their own lives, such as concerns about their grandmother’s survival. The book concludes with the lava clearing from Hilo, leaving the town safe once again.
Overall, I enjoyed this novel: it had a slow pace and lacked a strong plot, but the characters were interesting, and the author did a good job of research into Hawaii during this time period. The book provided a vivid depiction of everyday life for different members of the community. After visiting this part of Hawaii for vacation, I found the descriptions relatable, past versions of places that I’ve visited.