October 26, 2006


Penny from Heaven. By Jennifer L. Holm. Random House. $15.95.

House of the Red Fish. By Graham Salisbury. Wendy Lamb Books. $16.95.

     Jennifer Holm’s semi-autobiographical tale of the 1950s and Graham Salisbury’s family-experience-based story of the 1940s are both well written and both effective, each in its own way.  The fog of nostalgia, though, seems to have settled over the authors to such an extent that their plots are not quite as strong here as in their other works.

     Penny from Heaven is set in 1953, a time that inspires this sort of prose: “Every year the uncles get me a big gift.  Last year we went to the circus and then for a lobster dinner afterward.  The year before that I got a fancy dollhouse.  Frankie gets presents from the uncles on his birthday, too, but not as big as mine.”  The setting is not entirely idyllic – Penny gets those big gifts in part because her father is dead – but there is a sense that the family issues on which this book rests are far from unsolvable and all part of learning and growing up.  Penny, who is 11, isn’t allowed to go swimming because her mother thinks she will catch polio at the pool; the two sides of her family are not speaking to each other; and everyone in the Italian-American family is aware that World War II happened only a few years ago, and that Italians were America’s enemies then.  Here is a typical musing of Penny about getting older: “Twelve has always seemed pretty old to me.  The girls who are twelve are in seventh grade and worry about their hair and are always trying to borrow their older sisters’ bras.”  If these worries seem petty in comparison with preteen worries 50-plus years later, that is part of the point: every generation sees itself deluged with its own set of problems, but even rain (as the old song says) can bring pennies from heaven.  If that message seems a little too sappily sweet, so will this entire book of reminiscences.  If the message makes you think happily of a simpler time and an apparently easier life, Jennifer Holm’s somewhat rose-colored glasses will fit you quite well.

     Graham Salisbury’s House of the Red Fish is set 10 years earlier than Holm’s book, during rather than after World War II, and it is a story of people who are considered enemies during the book – not ones thought of that way in the past.  House of the Red Fish is a companion to Under the Blood-Red Sun, and is set in 1943 – a year later.  It continues and expands the story of Tomi Nakaji, Japanese-American resident of Honolulu and, in this book, the 13-year-old man of the house.  So soon after Pearl Harbor, and so close to the scene of the disaster, Tomi is (understandably) viewed with suspicion by many, and with outright hatred by Keet Wilson – son of the family for which Tomi’s mother works as a maid.  Tomi’s father is gone, arrested after Pearl Harbor, his fishing boat sunk by the U.S. Army.  Tomi does have friends as well as enemies, and he has a project: raising and repairing that boat, and symbolically raising and repairing the image of his family and of all loyal Japanese-Americans.  There is a great deal here about honor and its difficult intersection with reality, and the way large conflicts such as wars are mirrored in small feuds.  This is territory that has often been explored before, but readers interested in a particular time and place – Salisbury’s family has lived in the Hawaiian Islands since the early 1800s – will find it interestingly atmospheric.

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