I was first introduced to Lois-Ann Yamanaka through Blu’s Hanging (1997). So, I thought I was prepared for the series of heartbreaks that ensue from her seventh novel, Behold the Many (2006). I was wrong.
The opening scene, alone, reveals how sexual and racial traumas carved onto a young woman’s body are also manifest in the landscape of the islands and the stories that her people choose to tell.
“The valley is a woman lying on her back, legs spread wide, her geography wet by a constant rain. Waterfalls wash the days and nights of winter storms into the river that empties into the froth of the sea.”
When they find her, she is shiny, she is naked, she is bound, but for her legs, spread open and wet with blood and semen. Tears in her eyes, or is it rain? Breath in her mouth, or is it wind? Her thicket of hair drips into her mouth, sliced open from ear to ear. She is pale green, the silvery underside of kukui leaves; her eyes and lips are gray, the ashen hinahina; her fingers and feet are white, the winter rain in this valley.
O beloved Hosana.”
Throughout the book, narrative veers off from describing the actual moments of violence as water flows around a rock in the river. Yet, the silence surrounding racial and sexual traumas are ironically deafening within Yamanaka’s lyrical narration.
As the title hints, this is not a story about a single character but many. In fact, the book goes back in time from 1939 to 1916 to focus more on the life of Hosana’s mother, Anah Madeiros. Like several fictional characters I have written about recently, she has the ability to see ghosts. The tragic part, however, is that there is nothing Anah can do for the ghosts, who are mostly children who died on the island. Born to a Portuguese plantation worker, Tomas Madeiros, and his Japanese wife, Sumi, in the O’ahu valley of Hawai’i, Anah learns early on that home is not a safe place for either her or her younger sisters, Aki and Leah. Even Charles, the second eldest son, is not exempt from Tomas’s abuse. Only the first born son, Tomas Jr. who can pass as white and also help his father’s work on the plantation is exempt from verbal and physical abuse. Moreover, Tomas Jr. actively participates in that cycle of abuse. Sumi tries her best to protect her children, but starts a slow descent into a sort of madness when her youngest, Leah, she calls akachan is torn away from her. The familial dynamic of the Madeiros is significant because it speaks to a broader racial dynamic of Hawai’i, back when it was a territory and not a state of the United States.
The Madeiros girls one-by-one — first Leah, then Aki and Anah — contract tuberculosis and are sent away to St. Joseph’s orphanage run by nuns. Though the younger ones find it more difficult to be separated from their mother, Anah is almost relieved that she is no longer subject to her father’s tyranny. That is, until Leah and Aki eventually die without getting adequate medical care for the tuberculosis. What was most shocking to me was how the sisters resent Anah more than they do anyone else. Aki keeps calling her mentirosa, which means a liar in Portuguese. What are we to make of the ghosts of the children who molest and assault Anah repeatedly? Especially, when the children seem to be molested by the ghosts of adults themselves even in the afterlife?
The nuns, Sister Bernadine most of all, fail to provide solace as they are often unrelentingly severe in their civilizing and evangelizing mission. Yet, Anah finds a rare friend and mentor in Sister Mary Deborah. Ezroh Soares, the younger brother of Seth who died at St. Joseph’s years ago, also becomes Anah’s friend and confidante as ghostly Seth did before him. When Anah survives into adulthood and is cured of tuberculosis through indigenous medicine, it seems like that things will finally get better for her. She even marries Ezroh out of love, unlike her mother, Sumi (Side note: Regarding Ezroh and Anah’s marriage union, my thoughts kept returning to Carmen Maria Machado’s short story, “The Husband Stitch.” Ezroh is a loving husband for sure, especially compared to Tomas. But even so…). Yet, the wrath of ghosts does not let Anah go and haunts even her daughters. Although the ending was already spoiled in the beginning, I wondered how the novel would close the gaping wounds so to speak. In any case, Yamanaka is one of the few writers who can pull off such an ending to a novel that is at once sad and beautiful. So, I was rather left in awe after the last sentence.