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VOLCANO by Garrett Hongo


A Memoir of Hawai'i

by Garrett Hongo

Pub Date: May 23rd, 1995
ISBN: 0-394-57167-3
Publisher: Knopf

A strikingly elegant family history, shot through with a poet's appreciation of Hawaiian geology.

Done out of his inheritance by a ruthless stepmother, the author's father moved the family from Hawaii to Los Angeles in the early 1950s. It was a jarring dislocation, made still more unreal when Hongo's parents chose to shroud their Hawaiian days, and many family members, in secrecy. As a mainlander teaching poetry to college students, Hongo (The River of Heaven) felt the pull of Hawaii and the need to do some digging in the family archives. He and his wife and child take up residence in Volcano, Hawaii, where the Hongo Store once served the locals. Reacquainting himself with the island, the author takes long walks afield and is smitten by the volcanic landscape, a patch of living incandescence: "I was spellbound out there, suddenly in a world strangified...a kind of silvery ocean on whose waters I could walk.'' Relatives are met--some confrontationally--and Hongo pumps them for his family's history. Stories emerge, and he turns them lovingly in his storyteller's hand, catching their drift and finding their dignity (or lack thereof). Meeting the dastardly stepmother is a great moment, and so too is the tale of the marine, the shop clerk, and the grocer's revenge. The poet's own progress, riddled with fits and starts, gets special, and raw, consideration. Through it all, Hongo quests for "that governing story of a familial past,'' one that may explain his family's detachment and his own dispirit. He finds instead a "beauty in belonging to this earth and to its past, even one locked in mystery and prohibition, unstoried.''

Lyrical and aching in all the right measures, a finely crafted piece of work distilled to its essence.