Review: Lester Higata's 20th Century, stories by Barbara Hamby

Imagine, if you can, this story being told as if one were reading spiraling sentences printed on what has now been folded into an origami lotus. The end of Mr. Higata’s life is on the outermost petals, the root of his life is deep in the heart of a paper flower so well-crafted, that it even gives off the head aromas of the text. It has a Merlinesque feel to it – living time backwards. It enables an odd kind of involved dramatic irony which only adds to the text’s complex taste.

Hamby has made an incredibly successful transition from poetry to fiction, a true credit to her mother (to whom the book is dedicated) whom, Hamby says, “has always tossed words around and made them spin and laugh and do cartwheels on the lawn.” The juxtaposition of Hamby’s love for her own mother with her characters is somewhat surprising. Here, you have an author who obviously has wonderful memories of growing up with her mother, writing about two mothers (Mrs. Higata – the title character’s mother, and Mrs. Thompson – his mother-in-law) who are domineering, murderous and racist sticks in the mud. Throw in Ruby Kaapuni, and you’ve got a boxed collector’s edition set of crappy mothers.

In the case of the former two, it serves to prove that the best people are sometimes formed from the worst parents (mothers, at least – both of the fathers are decidedly less evil). In the latter case of Ruby Kaapuni, it’s the opposite – her husband beats her and rapes their daughter, and is later killed by their son who goes mad like his sister. Happy family, no?

Lester Higata is a fictional character – a family man, a good man and, though fictional, very human. In Hamby’s acknowledgements for the volume she says that “[he] has been a part of [her] for so long that sometimes [she] forget[s] he is not a real person.” I can understand why. He’s in excellent company, joined in this story by a veritable rainbow of personalities, each as human as the next. And if her love for these characters was ever in question, the proof is in her words – as colorful, as fragrant and as juicy as Mr. Manago's mangos or Helen Nakamura’s papayas. 

The book won't be published until October, but when it does come out, I strongly recommend it - for the story, and for the inherent poetry. And if you enjoy history (and Hawaii's history, at that) it's even more layered and beautiful. 

Lester Higata’s 20th Century

Stories by Barbara Hamby
University of Iowa Press
October 2010
184 Pages


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