Milton Murayama's "Plantation Boy"

Plantation Boy Plantation Boy by Milton Murayama

My review

rating: 5 of 5 stars
Tosh, the number one son of the Oyama family, is the hard-head, short tempered plantation boy-- who terrorized Kiyo in the first book and butts heads with his mother Sawa in the second of this series. Here we get into Tosh's head-- and to my surprise, his storytelling was the most compelling.

Murayama creates complete voices-- full psyches and internal worlds-- so subtly that you don't notice how cleverly he's done it. The narrators are so natural that the novels seem like simple autobiographies. I realized with a jolt half-way through that the whole book is in the present tense. That gives the storytelling an immediacy and compelling urgency, even when the content is as detached as laundry lists: who is getting married, who has died.

Tosh is all reports-- all political headlines, boxing scores, transcribed letters and major life events like a bulleted list. He gives no thought to the interior lives of the people around him, barely mentioning his wife or kids, parents, brothers or sisters, never introspective or reflective. He lives completely in the moment, from fight to fight.

He's all fight. His fights include the mistreatment of Japanese on the plantation, the debt and stupidity (as he sees it) of his issei parents, the chasm between the nisei world and the isseis, as well as between the niseis and everyone else. He struggles to gain a skill and get off of the plantation, to build a house, to build a job, to fix his daughter's club foot-- one battle after another.

I feel like this book has given me an entirely new perspective on Hawaii, and the real long-reaching effects of the plantations, the unions, and the long history of racial discord. Haole-only banks, anti Japanese protests, race based communist accusations (one senator from the south objecting to Hawaii's statehood with, "Can you imagine sitting next to a Senator Yamamoto?"), and the long shadow of the fuedal plantation system pitting old time wealthy white families against everybody else.

It's easy for me as a newcomer haole to feel surprised and hurt by the level of mistrust and dislike that I encounter here just based on my race. But reading this-- no wonder people are angry!

The most moving moment was when Matt, who is reading this at the same time as I am, suddenly found his great uncle's death in Italy mentioned. It dawned on us-- all these other deaths, all these other struggles-- they're all real, too. Tosh may be fictional...but only in the specifics.

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