Reviewer Tom Pope: Tom is a writing teacher and fiction coach who strives to spark the imagination. As a teacher, he works with tutoring services to help students organize essays and understand literary elements like the point of view. As a fiction coach, he aids authors to develop characters, brainstorm conflict pacing and design worldbuilding.
Follow Tom's BLOG that seeks to find the intersection where fiction meets reality. Through several sections, he shows the forces that surround characters in literature and the screen as the obstacles that shape us in reality.
In CW Schutter’s historical novel, Chaul Roong flees his native Korea, and Mary, his daughter-in-law, strives to live in a personal prison of postponed love and poverty. Their struggles strike them from social forces outside their control, and while wars and a lack of respect for other cultures seem like barriers, the characters find solace in a new version of the word community.
Community once meant only the people on your street or those in a clan. Yet Schutter shows readers how individual acts by people who share the torment of war, the workplace, or the quest to conquer a disease, can fit into the larger scope of Ohana, or family — they become part of a new community.
Schutter whisks readers through the generations of three families from Korea, Japan, and Ireland as they grow in Hawaii between the early 1900s and 1985. In the mix, the families escape war and famine. Yet other barriers found them. While Korean and Japanese workers became linked against the white oppressive plantation owners, they faced a constant force of being denied the prosperity of the land. While the Irish character of Patrick finds a comfortable life as an overseer, his nephew Sean faces marital success and advancement only because he defies his heritage and climbs the social pineapple tree.
The second generation faces powerful forces that drain the self expression, quest for love, and desire to fit into society. Mary, daughter to the Japanese family, cannot continue her love with Sean and settles for a life with a son from Roong. Yet that life becomes one of the wife of a mob leader as crime appears the only way out for Roong’s sons to find advancement. Sean faces the quest of rising to the top to duplicate the power from those who oppressed his uncle in the early part of the 1900s. In the process, Sean adapted the mentality of the oppressor.
But Schutter reveals individual acts from certain people can chart a character on the path for a new community. Many Koreans and Japanese harbor a distrust for each other from past invasions. Yet Roong manages to escape death in Korea because a young Japanese soldier helps him escape. Somehow an act of defiance of a social norm sent that soldier into another plane of existence where he did not see Roong as an enemy. Just as Roong failed to see Mary’s father, a Japanese, as an enemy. Her father shared the common bond of working in the sugar plantation in Hawaii. Roong widened his vision of community to accept the man.
However, defying the norm requires outside help, and Schutter shows the way a middle target in the social structure can aid the people at the bottom. Roong’s appeal to Patrick, the Irish foreman, finds a person more open than most in white society to the Asian workers. But Patrick is also beneath the higher upper class of the plantation owner. Roong’s friendship prompts Patrick to aid the workers when a white supervisor commits a crime. While Patrick is powerless to stop the owners’ answer to a strike, he does provide support for Roong and his family. Maybe that agent of help emerges as the difference between Roong and Roong’s sons who embark on a life of smuggling to find their place in the world.
Mary, as the Japanese wife of a son of Roong may also reveal Schutter’s view on community. Mary forsakes her dream of love with Sean to passively accept his child. But her love later drives her to aggressively defy the social norms to seek others for an answer to a health crisis. Mary widens her feel for community beyond the father, to the extended family despite the seemingly high wall of social taboos. In so doing, she discovers an openness as those others also seek a sense of community.
The thrill of a passion in life along with expanding a dream often comes at the expense of a social norm. Schutter constantly poses characters who are denied a passion or dream because they succumb to a social norm. When they thrive, they shake up a norm. Mary loses a love because she can not aggressively find Sean. Sean succumbs to a life of seeking social advancement and follows the drum beat of war — society says it’s patriotism. Yet Susan, Chaul’s granddaughter, defies the Vietnam War effort and links up with Sean’s son who exists on the outside of society’s standards. They kindle a fire of dreams and passion only because they shake up the traditions.
One caveat readers should be aware. Schutter’s introduction of the three families strikes the way life hits people. Seemingly unrelated individuals appear only to later merge into the tapestry of a connection or community. Yet readers might feel disjointed, pulled one way and then another as the scene shifts from one family to another. A willingness on the part of the reader is required to step beyond the distance at the beginning. However, a reader’s continued effort opens them up to see how characters in a novel mirror those in reality.
Ohana might be translated as family, but the wider definition could cast the net of the meaning into a community where people share a quest for love, for success or the desire to create.
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