Reminiscent of the writings of Lois-Ann Yamanaka, Punahou Blues takes place in Hawaii, in particular on the island of Oahu. The narrator is Jeffrey, who at the beginning of the novel is in the first grade at Star of the Sea school. He has an older brother, Ben, who gets held back in school one year and ends up in the same grade as Jeff. Their mother is blonde and blue-eyed and originally from Boston, but their father is from the islands, and they can claim Hawaiian blood in their lineage.
The book is a series of narrations told by Jeffrey, highlighting events in his life starting from the first grade and leading up to high school graduation. One of my favorite chapters includes “The Ring,” in which Jeffrey, who is at this time in the first grade, has become obsessed with a diamond ring that his father possesses. This ring belonged to his father’s grandmother, and while Jeffrey knows his Ten Commandants (thou shalt not steal), he eventually gets hold of it and begins his task of taking the ring apart, prying the prongs open in order to take each tiny diamond for his own. What Jeffrey does not realize is the worth of these diamonds, not even understanding what a diamond really is. There is a scene in which Jeffrey plays with the gems in the bathtub, subsequently shoving them down the drain when he thinks he’s about to be caught. When the cleaning woman is blamed and fired for the “theft”, Jeffrey keeps quiet. The hilarious resolution at the end of chapter one will have the reader laughing out loud. Boys will boys, as they say.
The book reads like a memoir, with scene after scene of boyhood memories as Jeffrey grows up. He learns to stand up to his “enemies” when uncle Sharkey teaches him to box, and he also tells the tale of his first crush, on pretty girl in school named Debbie Mills who only had eyes for Wayne, one of Jeffrey’s tormentors. It’s tough growing up as a haole in Hawaii, but Jeffrey and his brother manage to survive and reach adulthood intact.
One of the delights of this novel is the author’s free use of the local language. This reader is quite familiar with some of the more common words and phrases spoken in Hawaii such as “haole”. With the help of the glossary at the back of the book, any reader not familiar with the Hawaiian slang will be able to pick up new vocabulary that is familiar to those born and raised on the Islands.
While the last chapter is rather anti-climatic, the author does a great job with giving the reader a feel for life on the islands, and what it is like being "haole", or Caucasian, in a sea of Asians and Polynesians. I enjoyed the book for the memoir-like stories, but I felt that the last chapter and its concluding page could have ended differently. I put the book down feeling that there was something missing. Or maybe it was a yearning that I wished the book hadn’t ended so soon. I'll be giving this book three and a half stars for it’s light-hearted look at growing up in Honolulu, and the glimpse into the life of a Haole in Hawaii.