Lisa Shea Essay - Critical Essays

Shea, Lisa


Lisa Shea Hula

Born in 1953, Shea is an American novelist, editor, journalist, and poet.

Hula (1994) is a moving account of survival, child abuse, sibling rivalry, male-female relationships, and the disintegration of a family. Centering on a war veteran, his passive wife, and their two daughters, the episodic Hula is told from the perspective of the youngest child and details over the course of two summers the sisters' entrance into adolescence, their growing interest in sex, and the demise of their parents' marriage. Subjected to their alcoholic father's random acts of violence and cruelty—he exhibits a penchant for arson, often destroys the girls' playthings, and in one scene tries to kidnap them at gunpoint—the narrator and her sister attempt to escape their situation by devoting their affections to their dog and by creating a fantasy world. Their bond of interdependence, however, remains irrevocably threatened by their fights with each other and by the older girl's relationships with the neighborhood boys. Earning Shea a 1993 Whiting Writers' Award, Hula has been generally well received. Although occasionally faulted for its one-dimensional portraits of the parents, Hula is noted for its psychological acuity and factual recounting of disturbing events in a voice that is devoid of artifice and emotion. Cynthia Dockrell observed: "Shea establishes a tension that builds almost unbearably as the novel progresses. She achieves this in part through the oddly distant first-person telling of the story; the girl's blunt, childlike recording of horrific events, interspersed with her descriptions of the pent-up, overheated atmosphere, pulls her back from the action while drawing us closer to it. Shea's taut prose further adds to the story's power as she paints vivid pictures stripped of all but the barest essentials."


Kirkus Reviews (review date 15 October 1993)

SOURCE: A review of Hula, in Kirkus Reviews, Vol. LXI, No. 20, October 15, 1993, p. 1291.

[In the following favorable review, written prior to the publication of Hula, the critic relates the plot of the novel.]

[Lisa Shea's Hula is a tiny], lucid first novel about two girls who navigate the shoals of puberty—and escape the dangers of a terrible, mean, cruel father.

In a wry but deadpan voice, the younger of two sisters (the older is getting breasts) narrates the events of the summers of 1964 and 1965, when the girls' parents at last split up. Mother teaches dance at a local studio, and father, with a shiny metal plate in the back of his head ("My mother says something happened to our father in the war but my sister says he is just mean"), hangs around the house and yard in a state of barely suppressed rage, often being cruel, sometimes drinking too much (this makes him prone to shoot his pistol), and on occasion (as at the end, when he attempts to kidnap his daughters) flying into real, wild violence. As the storm of their repressive father's irrationality slowly brews, the girls live their own carefully guarded, small, private lives, sneaking swims in a neighbor's above-ground pool (it has slugs in it), quarreling endlessly (along with scratches and punches), escaping on pretend-journeys in the burned-out car on the lawn (where their father sometimes sleeps, his feet sticking out the window), and stealing away at night to meet up with local boys. There's a small dog that adds a droll and often touching humor, an eerie episode of a sheep (father kills and then burns it), and a once-pet rabbit that lost its tail and now keeps to itself, though never going far from the yard ("Lily is wild but she is still ours"). Father's kidnap attempt, with car and gun and bullets and daughters, is, like everything else here, skillfully understated and vividly told.

Small, spare pleasures aplenty, albeit in a tale as worn and familiar as a soft old glove.

Gary Krist (review date 16 January 1994)

SOURCE: "Sins of the Father," in The New York Times Book Review, January 16, 1994, p. 11.

[Krist is a prizewinning American short story writer. In the mixed review below, he praises Shea's focus on child abuse and survival in Hula, but faults her use of a child as a narrator.]

Children, like many other small, apparently fragile creatures of nature, are actually great geniuses of survival. Forced to live in a world dominated by larger and more powerful animals, they learn to retreat to the inconspicuous corners of an unfriendly situation—accommodating the whims of the reigning bully, cultivating unobtrusiveness, vanishing when danger threatens only to re-emerge when the blustering of giants is past. Circumstances that would paralyze the average adult with despondency won't necessarily defeat a child, who doesn't labor under the same expectations of what life should be. As a result, children can thrive in the most unlikely places—even in that most noxious of environments, the traditional nuclear family.

Certainly the two nameless young girls at the center of Hula, Lisa Shea's terse, meticulously observed first novel, have ample opportunity to refine such psychological survival skills. The controlling figure in their 1960's Virginia household—their father, a menacing, periodically hospitalized veteran of precarious sanity—is not exactly what most child psychologists would consider an ideal parent. A man with "a bomb in his head that keeps going off," he is given to bizarre and arbitrary forms of discipline, subjecting his daughters to mock executions, burning their playthings, making the older girl strip naked on the porch and then throwing her clothes into the yard. The girls' mother, meanwhile, provides at best an ineffectual buffer against this abusive behavior, spending much of the book in bed with various ambiguous ailments. It's no wonder the two...

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Cynthia Dockrell (review date 30 January 1994)

SOURCE: "Dancing in the Shadows of a Fearful Childhood," in The Boston Globe, January 30, 1994, p. A15.

[In the following, Dockrell offers praise for Hula, discussing Shea's focus on victimization, abuse, and male-female relationships.]

"Nothing will catch you. Nothing will let you go." So Lisa Shea warns us as she quotes Jorie Graham's Tennessee June in the epigraph to her first novel, Hula. Appropriate as it is, this signpost only hints at the netherworld that lies ahead, a limbo-like place where hiding becomes a high-stakes game of survival. It is a world of stark contrasts—light and darkness, flowers and ash, innocence and loss. It is a fear-filled place where fantasy is not just the stuff of childhood but a bridge to safety. It is sensuous, harrowing and mesmerizing.

In this slim volume, two sisters come of age in mid-1960s Virginia in the prison that is their back yard. Over the course of two steamy summers, the younger sister narrates as she and her sibling try to stay one step ahead of their war-damaged father and his unpredictable rages, while their shadowy mother, a former dance teacher, drifts ever further into the background.

To the narrator, who remains nameless, as do the others in the family, the father is an alien: "In the back of his head is a hole where no hair grows. Where no hair grows there is a metal plate attached to his head. In the sun, light strikes the metal plate like signals from a flying saucer." Indeed, he is unknowable and dangerous, punching his head with his fists, shooting up the back yard after a drink-filled day with a war buddy, donning a gorilla head and hands before driving off in the car. He metes out severe punishments for his daughters' smallest crimes, whipping them with a rope belt, burning the hula skirts in which they try to dance as their mother once did.

Faced with such horrendous abuse, the younger sister escapes into make-believe as she hides in the forsythia bushes, or on top of the garage, or in the ditch where her father burns everything from trash to the corpse of a puppy hit by a car. While in the shadows, she sets the world right, bravely transforming her parents into the king and queen or imagining great escapes in the burnt-out car at the end of the driveway. Her sister is both accomplice and enemy: In her emerging sexuality, she straddles the worlds of children and women, content with girls' games one day, contemptuous of them the next. Full of the false confidence of early adolescence, she teases her sexually innocent sister to the point of torment.


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Karen Houppert (review date 15 March 1994)

SOURCE: "Full Disclosure," in The Village Voice, Vol. XXXIX, No. 11, March 15, 1994, p. 57.

[Here, Houppert provides a favorable assessment of Hula.]

Two girls sit on the front steps of their house watching the arrival of a storm while their parents fight inside, angry voices clearly audible. Their father's voice is "the thunder getting closer," their mother's "the wind shaking the pointy leaves of the mimosa tree." The narrator, a girl of about 10, has no shirt on because her volatile father has chased her suddenly from the house. Her older sister—12?—looks at the girl's bare chest. "Cover yourself," she says. The narrator answers: "I don't have anything."


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Barbara Rich (review date July 1994)

SOURCE: "Haunted Household," in The Women's Review of Books, Vol. XI, Nos. 10-11, July, 1994, p. 47.

[Rich is an American critic and fiction writer. In the review below, she praises the thematic focus and stylistic features of Hula.]

Lisa Shea is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in several prominent publications; she is the recipient of a 1993 Whiting Writers' Award. There are rumors that Hula is autobiographical, in the way so many first novels are. If this is the case, there's a strong temptation to offer up paeans yet again to the ability of human beings to survive.

The narrator of Hula and her older sister live in a rundown...

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Lisa Shea with Christopher Giroux, CLC Yearbook (interview date 2 December 1994)

[In the interview below, Shea discusses various aspects of Hula, including its composition, her new work, and her literary influences.]

(The entire section is 2643 words.)