Lisa Shea’s narrator in HULA offers a compelling glimpse into the survival instincts of children subjected to extreme family dysfunction and the ways they internalize their fears even as they control them. A preadolescent girl whose body is only beginning the transition to adolescence which has engulfed her older sister, she desperately seeks to hold on to the central relationships of her childhood—one with a beloved dog, Mitelin, and the other with her bullying sister—just as the pressures of female sexual maturation are moving them inexorably apart. The adult world around her is equally fluid and far more threatening, for her father is a World War II veteran still suffering from a head wound that has left a metal plate in his skull and subjects him to periodical hospitalization as well as routine eruptions into derangement and violence. Their social marginalization is evinced by the wasteland landscape where they live, but the children imaginatively transform its ditches and junked cars into a playground where games assume a ritual power to protect them from the incoherences of their daily lives.
The patriarchal tyranny under which the household operates finds no counterforce in the children’s mother, whose chronic passivity before her husband’s outbursts make the permanence of their escape at the end of the novel highly doubtful. It is the narrator’s older sister who poses the biggest challenge to his hegemony through her insistent sexual...
Among the many strengths of Hula, winner of the Whiting Writers’ Award in 1993, is the way it depicts how children in harrowing circumstances encode the sinister atmosphere in which they live within the ordinary surfaces of their imaginative play. Lisa Shea tells this story through the first-person narrative of the younger of a pair of sisters in a severely troubled family. Relying primarily upon their sibling bond for emotional reinforcement, the two must negotiate the constant threat to their well-being posed by a father whose World War II head wound has left him deranged, the metal plate in his skull suggesting “a bomb in his head that keeps going off.” Hospitalized repeatedly, he supports his family through unspecified work at the local American Legion post. Their economic and social marginality is made visible in the wasteland landscape of junked cars and open drainage ditches that becomes the children’s playground.
The father routinely satisfies his lust for violence by staging conflagrations of the refuse that makes its way to their ditch. With the gun he keeps on hand, he engages in drunken shooting sprees whose scattered bullets become the objects of a perverse treasure hunt—one of many examples of how the children transmute the fear he inspires into the taming rituals of their games. They are not deluded, though, about their reality: The older girl bluntly describes their circumstances as war, and as in every war, battles often assume the form of surreal, sadistic games. In an episode reminiscent of Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood (1952), the father dons a gorilla costume at dinner and grabs food from the girls’ plates, his sole effort at “play” within the text really an exercise in intimidation. Later the girls surreptitiously watch as he beats a newly purchased sheep to death, his inexplicable assault on the dumb animal a graphic reminder of their own helplessness. While his habit of pounding his head against a wall in arguments with his wife injects pathos into the mix of emotions he arouses, his unrelenting tyranny toward the women in his household suggests that although a victim of apocalyptically yielded male power himself, he champions an unfettered patriarchy whereby irrational masculinity unconstrainedly imposes its authority on everyone around.
Not surprisingly, he proves most aggressive in attempting to control female sexuality. Although his future wife was a dance instructor when he met her, he now forbids her even to teach her daughters graceful dances like the hula. When he discovers the girls with grass skirts, he angrily consigns the toys to his fires. His older daughter’s tap dancing earns no such condemnation, presumably because of its less sexualized nature, but her adolescent forays into the woods with boys so enrage him that he first tries to imprison her in their yard and then whips her when she defies his edicts. That he is in a losing battle to curtail her hormonal urges is made obvious by the way he recedes from the narrative as the scenes involving her sexual adventurism multiply.
The children’s mother fails to offer an effective female counterforce to their situation. Most of the time she is markedly absent from the text, the narrator commenting in a typical moment of crisis that “my mother could be anywhere.” A housewife and part-time staffer at the local dance studio, she lets inertia shape her responses to her husband’s terrorism. Ironically, she remains a greater enigma in her aloofness than the father, for while his metal plate provides a tangible if incomplete explanation for his worst excesses, there is no comparable route into her subjectivity except for the tears and hand-wringing impotence to which she occasionally resorts. Pretty, gentle, dreamy, she is doted upon by her similarly dreamy younger child, whose fantasy of escaping into a world inhabited by just the two of them hints at the deprivation of affection she suffers. The older daughter far more resistant to the cult of female passivity, vacillates between a childish hope that her mother will repudiate her chronic lassitude and a rebellious adolescent conviction that she herself will break her father’s hold on them.
To both girls’ surprise, their mother finally yields to the urgings of a friend and moves herself and her daughters to a cheap motel decorated in a Hawaiian motif recalling the forbidden hula. The book ends, however, with ominous hints that she will not sustain this independence. Telling the girls obliquely that “we might stay at the Waikiki another week,” the mother triggers the narrator’s fears of the powerful male force irresistibly drawing them back to the status quo: “I don’t see our father in the picture, but I know he’s there, waiting to find us. . . . He’ll come after us with tears in his eyes, just like we never left.”
While it is predictable that the girls turn to each other for security, their complex...