MIDDLE SON by Deborah Iida


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A mildly suspenseful, elegiac first novel of a Japanese family tragedy in a Hawaiian sugarcane plantation town: how an elder brother's accidental death haunts the middle son's life for the next 20 years. Author Iida, who lives on Maui, opens her story in the present day as Spencer Fujii comes on one of his regular visits to his now-dying widowed mother--a woman who has lived her entire life on ""Japanese row"" in Wainoa, Maul, one of many isolated communities devoted to planting and harvesting sugarcane. Surrounded by endless fields, working from cradle to grave, the Japanese and other ethnic worker groups (Filipino, Chinese, Portuguese, Korean, all supervised by whites) had little opportunity for assimilation and followed the customs of their homelands overseas. For the Fujiis, this obedience generates two events that will warp the life of Spencer, the middle son. First, his father, an eldest son, forces his wife to give up her newborn third son to his younger brother's family--an event witnessed in all its emotional awfulness by Spencer and his elder brother, Taizo (""At the price of a baby's love, the older brother was sacrificing for the younger. Uncle and Auntie would no longer be childless""); then, envious of Taizo's assumption of leadership as the eldest son, Spencer begins provoking his brother to similar acts of masochistic selflessness, culminating in an incident at a reservoir in which Taizo drowns. The simplicity of the pidgin dialect can give poignancy to these moments: ""Taizo never like water,"" their father says. ""Why he went inside?"" Spencer: ""Wanted for go."" Eventually, the guilt drives Spencer away, to Vietnam, to Honolulu, to marriage to a white woman, until, on his final visit back home, he realizes his entire life has been spent denying a secret that everybody already knew--and forgave. Iida piles a lot onto a frail narrative structure, but her skill at balancing rhythmic pidgin with well-wrought description creates a small gem about a fascinating and strongly traditional way of life, now vanishing.

Pub Date: March 31st, 1996
ISBN: 1565121198
Page count: 238pp
Publisher: Algonquin