Ni'ihau tale's issues still with us
By Wanda A. Adams
Advertiser Books Editor
By Wanda A. Adams
"EAST WIND, RAIN," BY CAROLINE PAUL; WILLIAM MORROW, HARDBACK, $23.95
In her fine first novel, San Francisco-based writer Caroline Paul uses one of history's more obscure footnotes — the crash landing of a lone Zero pilot on Ni'ihau on Dec. 7, 1941 — to explore issues very much on our minds today.
Airman Shigenori Nishika-ichi's sudden plunge into the life of the privately owned "Forbidden Island" roiled the waters of that calm pond, kept isolated by the strictures of the Robinson family, who to this day allow no one to visit or live there without invitation. The event, as it's portrayed here (and, one suspects, in real life, too), forces troubling questions to surface and cracks the fragile surface of relationships within the community.
A STORY, NOT HISTORY
In an author's statement, Paul is careful to explain that this work is strictly fiction, though it is built on the scanty facts of the case: That a pilot whose gas tank was shot up during the Pearl Harbor attack crash-landed on the dusty ranching island. That the island's owner, the community's leader and decision-maker, was not there at the time. That the residents — Hawaiian ranch families and a few Japanese-Americans — were forced to deal with the situation as best they could for seven days. And that some kind of "battle" took place. Paul asked for permission to visit the island, to hear the story from Ni'ihau residents themselves, but received no answer. But perhaps, she says, that is all right, since this is not a history.
Paul has visited Hawai'i — O'ahu and Kaua'i — often and first heard the bare bones of the Battle of Ni'ihau story from an acquaintance here. Paul was struck by the event's alien-from-outer-space aspect, the fact that it took place on the one populated island that had no clue about the start of the war, no telephone service, no regular transport, one radio, almost no communication with the rest of Hawai'i.
The possibilities called to the writer in Paul, who had previously published "Fighting Fire," a memoir of her experiences as a San Francisco firefighter.
Though she is not from here, Paul does not look stupid when it comes to the small stuff, as out-of-towners tend to do — not in geography, use of the Hawaiian language (although she does choose to accept the disputed definition of haole as "without breath") or, most remarkably, in her understanding of the stratified local cultures of the time.
As the characters respond to events, the unspoken emerges. The three Japanese adults on the island — the only ones who can understand the pilot, and therefore know about the Pearl Harbor attack, and the possibility of a Japanese invasion — think back on past slights and question their status as Americans and as members of this small community. The Hawaiian Ni'ihau residents, whose first reaction is to wait for Mr. Robinson — "he'll know what to do," are forced to act on their own, and the implication is that they will never again be so passive. Paul has said that the events of the Battle of Ni'ihau were among the arguments used to justify internment, so this tiny incident had a huge effect on America.
But Paul describes herself as a writer, not a journalist, and it's at the deeper, more subtle level — where fiction and art live — that the novel is really compelling.
This is a book about wrongdoing and its fruit. Long-buried sins and offenses rise up like spirits from the grave and entwine themselves around the characters. Everything that happens can be traced back to a past unaddressed wrong. The paternalistic condescension of the island owner leaves the island vulnerable. Racist actions directed against the Japanese and Hawaiian characters cause them to pull apart rather than together. Married couples hold on to resentments that explode in misunderstandings and prevarication.
So it is that the Japanese woman who aids the airman is not motivated by loyalty to the emperor. Feeling exiled in American culture, and acting out of disappointment in her husband for a past failing, she puts into motion forces that eventually send her into true exile.
"East Wind, Rain" — the title refers to the code used on Japanese radio to indicate an attack on America — is exceptionally well written. The dialogue is particularly strong, believable and revealing as much by what the speaker doesn't (or can't) say as it does by what is spelled out. Scenes are set as carefully as for a film, and the action flows cinematically. (Paul thought about becoming a documentary filmmaker.)
This is a highly readable book, but not an easy one. Neither a romantic romp nor a predictable thriller, it is yet full of love and quite exciting. But it is also thought-provoking and filled with evocative images.
You can knock this book off in a night if you're a quick reader, but don't do it. Savor the description. Notice the details. Feel the feelings. Think about the issues. They're still with us.
Reach Wanda A. Adams at firstname.lastname@example.org.