I love mystery stories, unique locations and the WWII time setting , so upon learning that Island of Sweet Pies and Soldiers had all three, I was anxious to read it. The story is interesting but very much reads as the freshmen effort it is.
Hawaii in 1944 is an island under a great deal of cultural strain. More than half the native population is of Japanese descent, and after Pearl Harbor, that ancestry marks them as possible enemy combatants or spies. Indeed, for some of the haole (mainlanders) it is less ‘possible’ and more ‘probable’. Life still goes on, though, even in war time and for many people, personal concerns outweigh national ones. A year after her husband Herman disappeared, Violet Iverson’s daughter Ella is still picking at her freckles, creating scabs across her skin. She is still wetting her bed at night. She often wets herself during air raid drills at school. She rarely speaks to anyone but her mother and their housemate Jean. Psychiatric visits and medical intervention have been of no help in getting Ella to deal with her grief. When she asks to go to Japanese school, Violet realizes that it’s not the best climate to do such a thing, but eager to give her daughter any support she can she arranges for Ella to go.
At the same time this is happening, marines arrive in their small town of Waimea. One of those marines is Jean’s brother and it isn’t long before he and his friends make a routine of swinging by Violet and Jean’s house for dinner, conversation and laughter. They bring Roscoe with them, a lion cub, who becomes instant buds with Ella. The two quickly form a strong bond.
Despite this happy distraction though, the overall mood on the island is tense. The Japanese school is closed by soldiers during one of its evening classes and the teacher is arrested and sent to a camp. Needless to say, this is traumatic for the young students in attendance, especially Ella. Then Violet and her friends, who have a pie stand near the military base, are accused of spying. Their strongest ally is Roscoe’s trainer, Parker, a man who is as smitten with Violet and Ella as his lion is. They are released from military custody after the charges are proven false but that isn’t enough to completely alleviate the suspicions caused by Herman’s disappearance. He had been known for his sympathy for the native Hawaiians and his resolve to see them treated with respect, justice and tolerance. His views were not popular at the time he disappeared and are even less popular now that the war is heating up. There has been more than one whispered accusation of treason being the reason he is gone. Nevertheless, determined to build a life for her daughter and herself and to finally find the answers she needs for closure, Violet sets out to discover the truth behind what happened to her husband.
Women’s fiction tends to be character driven and one of the major problems in this story is that the characters are sketched rather than fully drawn. We get background information about them, but that information tends to be simple factoids, not insight into who they are as people. When a story is driven by characters and the characterization is weak, it suffers overall, which is what happens here.
The author tries to prop up her underdeveloped characters by including major events – the war, Herman’s disappearance, Roscoe – but the reactions to these life-altering occasions actually underscores the fact that we didn’t know these people. As an example, take the story of Herman and his disappearance. His absence allows the romance between Violet and Parker to bloom but because he is missing and not dead, it serves as a major impediment to it as well. It’s also listed as the cause for Ella’s strangeness but other than that, the man isn’t missed. It’s as though he walked out of his own life one day and after a cursory search, everyone just continued living without him. That might have worked if he were a bad or abusive figure, but he is written as kind and almost heroic, which makes it inexplicable. So why don’t these two genuinely miss him? Why aren’t we seeing them work through their pain, rather than just vaguely referencing it?
Another problem is that this book reads much the same way a poorly mixed casserole tastes: discordant and haphazardous. The pieces never quite come together to form a harmonious whole. The romance between Violet and Parker doesn’t really mix well with Ella’s oddness; the racial tension – which is an important point in the story – doesn’t mix with the story of Roscoe the lion.
Because I felt like I was moving in and out of different narratives, I found it hard to get invested in what was happening. I didn’t care about Violet and Parker’s love story because the missing Herman meant they didn’t really have a future. The impact of the unfair treatment received by the Hawaiians of Japanese ancestry was lessened by the fact that we didn’t really know the individuals being abused. While I know that Roscoe is an actual historical figure, his presence in this storyline was distracting. I would have preferred a human friend for Ella in his place.
There are some good points. Island of Sweet Pies and Soldiers tells a unique tale. Hawaii experienced a very different WWII than the American mainland did and reading about that was fascinating. It’s clear the author has done her research; much of what she includes are actual events and she does a fabulous job of showing how the islanders responded to the war, to the troops and to the very real threat to their lives.
The racial tension is also interesting to read about. The author does a good job of showing how attitudes toward the Hawaiians changed after Pearl Harbor and also how ridiculous most of the prejudice was. Snippets of the rumors people of that time were spreading about the Japanese showed how much racism is based on ignorance and fear.
I also liked how the author captured some interesting, everyday life moments such as the foods eaten on the island and how women slept with their hair curled around grape juice cans to achieve that just right look.
Readers will have to decide if the novelty and historicity of Island of Sweet Pies and Soldiers will be sufficient to interest them in it, since I can’t really recommend it on other grounds.
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