THE WASHINGTON POST – Gail Tsukiyama’s first novel in nearly a decade, The Color of Air, takes readers to the 1930s Hawaii of her Japanese father, where sugar was king and labour was hard.
Enormous sugar cane and pineapple plantations, owned by privileged white haole families and managed by Portuguese overseers known as lunas, ran on the backs of immigrants seeking a small piece of the American Dream.
Tsukiyama’s book focusses on those immigrants and some of their descendants, living in the town of Hilo in 1935, on the cusp of the Mauna Loa volcanic eruption.
Her characters include the dependable Koji, who recently lost his lifelong love Mariko to cancer. Koji considers himself a surrogate father to Mariko’s son, Daniel, recently returned from the mainland at the same time as his high school sweetheart, Maile. These characters all harbour secrets that hold them back from developing deeper relationships.
But before we can learn more about their backstories, Mauna Loa erupted, “The great white plumes of smoke turned an ash-filled dusty brown before emerging white again, only to be chased away by a spewing red-hot curtain of lava that blew from the fissures hundreds of feet into the air.”
The 1935 eruption did threaten Hilo; from late November until December, the lava flow advanced a mile per day. Toward the year’s end, troops commanded by Lieutenant Colonel George S Patton dropped bombs to divert the flow; no one knows whether they were successful or whether the eruption simply ended.
Tsukiyama used this real-life event to great effect, weaving in the beliefs of her characters who think the goddess Pele’s anger caused the eruption.
“Pele can’t stay mad forever,” one character said.
“Yeah, she can,” another replies. She’s “not like one of your girlfriends you can sweet-talk out of being mad at you.” Daniel was born during an earlier eruption, and his mother liked to say that meant, “Pele will always watch over you.”
Now, Daniel’s not so sure. As he and Maile return home, both are reeling.
A well-educated Chicago doctor, he has a diagnosis on his conscience, and Maile is on the run from an abusive relationship. We learn much more about Daniel than Maile, an imbalance that rankles.
Tsukiyama makes up for it in part with her wise decision to create sections that dive into earlier history (Island Voices) and passages in which she allows the dead to speak (Ghost Voices).
These interstitials not only provide background and crucial information, they also make the 1930s material feel more urgent and contemporary than it otherwise might in a historical novel.
As Daniel cares for a dementia-ridden Hilo elder, we see that the traditions of Hawai’i need not be subsumed by modernisation; Western medicine can co-exist with indigenous remedies.
We also see, through Koji’s memories of the fight to unionise the plantations, that some forms of modernisation aren’t simply niceties.
In The Color of Air, the beauty is in finding the balance.