A debut drama follows a biracial girl and her family, who endure poverty and racism in mid-1980s Hawaii.
Nine-year-old Amanda Nakamura lives in a two-bedroom apartment in Mililani with her mom, Mehana, and two sisters, Wendy, 12, and Stephanie, 5. The girls rarely see their Japanese father, Gordon, whose idea of child support is a meager $60 a month. Determined to get herself and her daughters off welfare, Mehana goes to school full-time while holding a part-time job. Her parents and sisters offer little help, Mehana’s divorce having essentially made her the outcast of her Roman Catholic family. Food’s scarcely in the fridge, but Amanda and her siblings also must contend with “uncles,” their mom’s series of generally appalling boyfriends, like Dick Richards, who gets too touchy-feely with Amanda. Amanda’s left out as the middle child, sure that Stephanie is her mom’s favorite and Wendy her dad’s. Searching for an identity, she’s a Hawaiian raised within Mehana’s family but suffering the ignorance of racial slur-spewing peers who believe she’s Japanese or black. She’s even mocked by the daughters of Mehana’s boyfriend Chuck, calling her a haole (foreigner, often referring to white people) because she can’t speak their pidgin tongue. Mehana will graduate and hopefully secure a better job, and Amanda and her sisters can leave behind their lowly existence. The tale of a girl not fitting in anywhere isn’t as cheerless as it sounds, thanks to its protagonist. Amanda can take a punch, sometimes literally, without demanding sympathy. This comes across not just in her behavior—resigned to the fact she can’t have anything nice after Wendy destroys a Christmas gift—but in her narration as well, relaying events in a dry, matter-of-fact tone. Condescending Aunty Aloha, for example, serves as comic relief, telling Amanda and her siblings to “shake it out” to avoid getting cockroaches in her new minivan. Lee skillfully handles key issues, including insults based on race or social standing derived not only from hatred, but also unfamiliarity and misunderstanding. Adults, however, are occasionally exaggerated, implausibly so; a teacher, irate with Amanda’s complaints about repeatedly watching the Challenger explosion, shows her class a stomach-turning video involving baby seals.
A thoroughly engrossing story with a young protagonist offering insight instead of woe.