Behold the Many

Written by Lois Ann Yamanaka
Review by Viviane Crystal


“Everyone I have ever loved has left me behind.” One character writes these words to another in a letter, but in reality each person within this novel could have spoken the same words. Those suffering from poverty or tuberculosis in 1913 Hawaii face not only physical but also emotional separation from family and friends.

Two children born to a Portuguese father and Japanese mother succumb to TB and have to be quarantined in a hospital-orphanage, where they eventually die. But Leah, Aki, and another boy patient, Seth, remain spirits who haunt the surviving daughter, Anah. While Anah survives TB at the orphanage, she suffers tremendously at the hands of a bitter nun, Sister Bernadine. Starvation and beatings in addition to haunting messages and even physical attacks from her dead siblings shape Anah into a strong albeit melancholic young woman. Saved from total hardening by the loving care of Seth’s brother, Ezroh, she eventually marries him and has four children of her own, who seem to bear the family’s haunted physical and emotional destiny. How Anah comes to terms with her nightmarish past speaks potently to all the characters, as well as the readers of this illuminating tale.

Yamanaka excels in the pidgin-style English spoken by these immigrant families, in lyrical descriptions of the Hawaiian setting, and in creating a mystical world filled with tortured ghosts seeking redress and peace. Anah comes to understand her mother’s loss as well as her own, as only a parent who experiences the unpredictable vicissitudes of life could possibly do. Within this patently different type of “love” story, Yamanaka has captured the essence of a little recognized group of Hawaiian residents who work this lush, beautiful land at a phenomenal cost.