Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 337 pages, $24
tales involving ghosts, dysfunctional families, poverty, rape,
addiction, and tuberculosis sound like something by Joyce
Carol Oates, set in the gray dreariness of 19th-century upstate
New York. But Behold the Many, by the frenetically
lively, frequently comic Lois-Ann Yamanaka, is an over-the-top
gothic that takes place in gorgeously colorful 20th-century
Hawaii. Moreover, much of this multivoiced novel is in Hawaiian
pidgin. A gothic novel in pidgin? Yes. And it works. You just
have to read like a kid who doesn’t know all the words and
certainly isn’t going to look them up. You keep reading and
pretty soon you understand everything.
the Many opens with a wrenchingly beautiful evocation
of a lush, rain-drenched valley, compared in glorious specificity
to a woman’s naked body. Only suddenly it turns out that there
actually is a body, one that’s bloody, raped, and murdered.
It is Hosana, the oldest daughter of Anah, the novel’s central
character. And it is Hosana who will ultimately resolve the
quarrel between Anah and the ghosts who are making her life
The novel quickly turns back to Anah’s childhood, and although
there are flashes forward and back, the story remains essentially
chronological. Born about 1900 to a long- suffering, ill-treated
Japanese mother and a mean-spirited, abusive Portuguese father,
Anah lives with her family in dire poverty on a sugar plantation
on O’ahu. When a white doctor diagnoses tuberculosis in Anah’s
baby sister, five-year-old Leah, the father insists she be
exiled to a distant orphanage. He remembers outbreaks of cholera,
polio, and smallpox in the camp that have killed hundreds,
including members of his own extended family, so he doesn’t
want Leah around.
Tiny Leah becomes hysterical when she’s abandoned to the nuns,
but soon receives comfort from a small boy ghost she thinks
is Jesus. In rapid succession Anah’s next younger sister,
Aki, is also diagnosed with TB and sent to the same orphanage,
followed shortly thereafter by Anah herself. Anah finds Leah
dying, and Aki raising all kinds of hell—no ghost Jesuses
for super-tough little Aki:
I am Aki. ‘Breathe the clean mountain air,’ they tell me.
I hate this place. ‘Eat the oatmeal with honey and cream.’
No taste good this haole food. . . . ‘Do the morning calisthenics.’
I hate this place. ‘Feed the hens.’ Let them die. . . . ‘Pray.’
God is dead. I will sin.
Aki can see Leah’s ghost comforter, but she knows it to be
Seth, a little boy who smashed his skull open when he fell
out of a tree. However, bloody-mindedness can’t save Aki any
more than innocence could save Leah, and when she dies, she
becomes an aggressive tormenter of Anah because Anah has lied
to her about going home.
The orphanage has the requisite evil nun (a German, of course,
who is racist, as well as narrow-minded and doctrinaire),
but there is also the rescuing Sister Mary Deborah, who sets
Anah to beekeeping and making honey. (Why has beekeeping suddenly
become the contemporary fictional therapy for childhood abuse?
Think The Secret Life of Bees.) Milk and butter come
to the orphanage from a Portuguese dairyman, father of the
unfortunate Seth, and his family ultimately supply Anah with
a husband as well as an entire clan to replace the one she
has lost. By the very act of escaping the orphanage, however,
Anah incurs the curses of the little orphan ghosts.
What makes the gratuitously awful events—and there are lots
of them—of this recklessly outrageous tale so compelling is
the energy of the author and the marvelous voices she creates.
The Chinese cook at the orphanage confesses that she’s tried
to change her ways since accepting Jesus Christ, but she still
sees the little orphan ghosts: “I so sorry I sin,” she says,
“I tell lie to the Reverent Mother, which is big number one
commanment thou shall not give false testimary. What I going
tell her? The ghost been bust me up ’cause I no listen them?”
Instead, when “Reverent Mother ask me how come my face and
arm all cut up, I tell her I clumsy with knives.”
When Anah finally leaves to marry, Seth curses her: “Curse
the ground you walk on. Burn your feet on earth’s hell. .
. . Curse your womb, Dirty waters break between your legs.
Curse you with girl babies. No namesake, no heirs. Dead babies,
deformed, crippled.” But at the end Seth gets to the true
crux of the matter: “Why have you left me there? It is me.
Seth. It is cold here, Anah. I want to go home too.”
Yamanaka takes us to a totally different America, filled with
completely unfamiliar immigrants who are themselves from vastly
different backgrounds and beliefs. Hostilities proliferate—grinding
poverty’s a big factor here—at precisely the same time that
individuals intermarry, and families become ethnically and
culturally mixed. Anah’s father’s family directs its virulently
anti-Asian hatred at Anah, her sisters, and their Japanese
mother, while the mother regards her Portuguese in-laws as
“filthier than pigs.”
But, sounding like a bell through the anger and violence come
words from the Apocryphal Acts of John that Anah periodically
repeats, often in statement and response with someone else—“If
you are a traveler, I will be a road”; “If you look at me,
I will be a lamp”; “If you see me, I will be a mirror”; “Love
is sweet, and sweetness dances.” Throughout the story these
exchanges tether Anah and those she cares for to their humanity,
often expressing, when the characters have little reason to
believe it, faith in life, beauty, families, and love.