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"Lester Higata's 20th Century" by Barbara Hamby

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The fragrant Hawaiian breezes blow through Barbara Hamby’s elegiac “Lester Higata’s 20th Century” like a gentle tidal flow, and they belie the sometimes fierce emotional ebbs and rushes that bedevil its characters. This is sumptuous, a delicious repast, a deserving award winner from the University of Iowa Press.

We witness several of Lester Higata’s life’s salient events in reverse order: we begin with 1999, the time of his death, and end up in 1946, when he falls in love while recuperating from war wounds suffered in Italy. Ms. Hamby has stitched together a series of stand-alone short pieces, à la “Olive Kitteredge,” to illuminate Lester’s life and times. She features Lester’s wife Katherine prominently, of course, along with his mother and father, and a few memorable neighbors, too. Each piece has a nearly impossible clarity while illuminating its weighty issues, and they lend themselves to the whole quilt beautifully. Ms. Hamby knows her subject intimately, and the emotional feel here is completely unerring. We have racial prejudice, greed, generational conflict, traditional vs. modern practices, xenophobia, and abuse issues all on display. But the feeling I take away is a quiet longing, a yearning for the islands, felt by one who grew up there and has been exiled.John Simmons Short Fiction Award at the University of Iowa. Well done!
But this longing never gets in the way of the plot or the characters. Lester fights for his country, sustains severe wounds, falls in love and marries, puts himself in harm’s way to protect a neighbor boy being chased down the street by a belt-wielding father, and on the eve of his death, jokes with his long-dead father about his insufferable mother. Characters recur story to story, of course, and if they’re lucky, they get a close treatment at Ms. Hamby’s deft hand.

Sometimes I search for a word to do justice to the flavor of a work, and the one that works here is “beguiling.” We rush from each short piece to the next, knowing we’ll reap another reward for our effort – and the anticipation is a chief delight. I applaud whoever bestows the
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