Review of the Day: House of the Red Fish
Sequels are tricky beasties and any author that attempts one is going to have to wrangle with a variety of problems. On the one hand, they have to satisfy their core fan base. The people who adored the earlier book and presumably clamored for a sequel in the first place. Then you have the new crop of readers. This is especially true with children’s fiction. Kids grow up and often abandon the authors they loved when they were young (at least through adolescence). In 1994 Graham Salisbury wrote the award winning “Under the Blood-Red Sun”. Now, twelve years later, he has come out with a long-awaited sequel, "House of the Red Fish". Fortunately, Salisbury’s earlier title is so well-known that the requisite fan-base is already in place and ready. However, there’s yet another problem with writing sequels. They have to be able to stand on their own. If you absolutely have to have read the previous book, then your sequel, nice as it is, is going to collapse under its own weight. And weighty books of this nature don’t win awards. I, personally, had never read “Under the Blood-Red Sun”, so I felt that I was in a pretty good position to determine how well “House of the Red Fish” stood on its own two feet. The advantage to having never read a work by an author like Graham Salisbury is that his talents have a tendency whop you upside the head and leave you wanting more. “House of the Red Fish” is everything an author would want out of a title. Consider this puppy a contender.
Tomi is still dealing with the fact that his father and grampa are interned far from home merely because they are of Japanese ancestry. It’s 1943 and America is at war with Japan, many of its white citizens terrified of their Asian neighbors. Living on Honolulu, Tomi and his best friend Billy go to school and try to avoid the nasty bully Keet, who (by awful coincidence) just happens to be the son of his mother’s employers. Then Tomi comes up with a crazy plan. It happens while he and Billy are staring at his father’s underwater sampan fishing boat, sunk not long after the attack on Pearl Harbor. If Tomi can raise this boat and fix it up, he may have a chance at having it in working condition when his father is finally released from his internment. The only problem is that Keet knows of the plan and will do everything in his power to stop Tomi and his friends. Worse still, raising the boat might mean putting his family’s home and livelihood in danger. But when Grampa Joji is released from his imprisonment, Tomi finds an unlikely ally in helping him achieve his goal.
The characters in this book are remarkable. And the best of these, without a doubt, is Grampa. He’s a cranky crochety old man with a single-minded tenacity that the reader grows to adore. I personally am going to adopt his standard phrase of “Confonnit” into my own vocabulary. Grampa has a great sense of pride, worth, and history. Salisbury complicates things nicely, however, when he has Grampa repeatedly give some of the family’s chickens, eggs, tomatoes, lettuce, string beans, and fish to their landowners, the nasty Wilsons. Salisbury doesn’t shy away from complexity. I mean, Billy’s pretty straightforwardly super. Ditto Billy’s family. But Tomi has his doubts and requisite crises of faith once in a while. And as for villains, Keet is marvelous. By the end of the book you begin to think that if someone doesn’t give that punk a swift kick in the butt then you’re going to have to do it personally. I did find that the oddest thing about reading this book without having so much as glanced at its predecessor was that I had very little idea of who belonged to what race. Billy’s white and Tomi’s of Japanese ancestry. Check. Got it. But how about their friends Mose and Rico? Are they Filipino? Of Hawaiian ancestry? It didn’t much matter to the story, but it would have been nice to get a little clarification.
As a writer, Salisbury seems to be utterly in control of each and every scene in this book. Yes, it’s a little long, but I can’t imagine removing so much as a sentence. Everything fits here. The people. The events. And definitely the climax. The tension really escalates by the end of the book too. I kept finding myself nervously counting the number of pages left against how far our heroes were in their plans. I actually found myself hoping that Keet and his lackeys wouldn’t show up and that maybe if I read fast enough I could beat them to the end. Not to give anything away, but no such luck. Salisbury’s grasp of Hawaiian Pidjin is also superb. I’ve a friend born and raised in Honolulu (she attended Punahou, Keet’s school in this book) who once told me that her mother would severely punish her if she ever heard her daughter utter casual Pidjin words or phrases. I wonder what her mom would have thought of the Glossary of terms in the back then.
Works of historical fiction tend to suffer from a dire fate: They’re humorless. Dry dull titles without a spark of wit or whimsy to save their soul. I expected this of “House of the Red Fish”, frankly. Somehow 280-some page tomes always look like they’ll be deadly serious. How wrong I was. Salisbury’s a great writer, yes. But he’s so great partly because he lets, for lack of a better term, his boys be boys. When Keet decides to invade Billy’s bomb shelter there a wonderful moment where the reader knows what Keet doesn’t... that the shelter is chock full of nasty centipedes. Oh, that’s good stuff. And the nice thing is that even when the plot is turning dire and our heroes have to raise this boat as soon as they can, characters still play jokes on one another, laugh, and have a good time. The fact that you’re having a good time right alongside them just happens to be a nice bonus.
So the good news is that I’m a Graham Salisbury convert. The bad news is that I don’t want to wait another twelve years to continue Tomi’s story. I comfort myself with knowing that since kids today still read and love “Under the Blood-Red Sun”, I’m sure they’ll love both this book and any others that Salisbury happens to come out with in the course of his lifetime. It will be worth the wait.
Be sure to check out Graham Salisbury's homepage for more info.