‘Ewa Which Way by Tyler Miranda peels back the bandage of what adults think adolescence is like to expose the raw, oozing strawberry of reality. I loved this book for its ability to show all the complicated rules, expectations, and entanglements of being a 12-year-old boy trying to make sense out of adult behavior. Set in ‘Ewa Beach, Hawaii in 1982, Landon DeSilva and his brother Luke know that lickins can fall from the sky like lightning, that a certain side-eye from a parent means a storm’s coming, and that sometimes no matter how long you hold your breath you can’t escape, but have to endure the wave to the end.
For Landon, things are bad at home, but not bad enough. Not enough for child protective services to swoop in and spirit Landon and Luke to a new home, not enough for the cops to do more than show up when his parents’ fights wake the neighbors, and not enough for his mother to realize her marriage is over. Throughout the novel Landon tries to figure out what he’s supposed to do when there’s really nothing he can. His parents’ troubles are deep—there’s guilt, prejudices of class and race, loss, alcohol abuse and valium popping coping mechanisms, unfulfilled expectations, and sheer dysfunction. Landon sees it all with the clarity of a twelve-year-old and his reactions and understandings are heartbreaking and true. Adult readers will read not only the story, but all the words and character motivations between the lines. It’s powerful, immediate, and like a bloody scrapped knee, painfully evocative of the transition between childhood and adulthood.
Tyler’s lyrical writing hit so many of the details of growing up in Hawaii pitch perfect—the politics of school bullies and teachers, the endless hours of chores (I so remember scrubbing toilets with Comet and Scott towels and weeding Saturday mornings in heat that felt like standing in a clothes dryer), frustration with siblings who seem to glory in amplifying the problems instead of flying under the radar, conflicting messages between Catholic church teachings and family actions, and the blessed escape an hour in the ocean can be. I particularly enjoyed Tyler’s description of surfing and futzing around in the shore break as a kid. It’s some of the most evocative passages about being in the ocean I’ve ever read.
There’s an argument in literary circles about the difference between books about kids and books for kids, with the educational conceit that kids will read stories about characters their age and a little older, but not younger. While Landon begins the novel as a sixth grader, (well, technically looking back to sixth grade), this book is not for the fourth–seventh grade crowd. My recommendation is for readers grade eight to adult for several reasons.
‘Ewa Which Way is finely crafted as literary fiction and by that I mean it’s rich in symbolism, allegory, metaphor, and has well-developed themes. As entertaining as it is, it’s also perfect for deconstruction in a literature class for kids old enough to appreciate the nuances in the writing. There is much for readers to explore in this novel that goes beyond a simple analysis of plot, character development, and setting. Like To Kill a Mocking Bird, Huck Finn, and The Chosen, ‘Ewa Which Way is a peek into a world few readers know and understand with a storyline that feels universal. (And yes, I do consider ‘Ewa Which Way a Pacific Lit equivalent to Huck Finn. Thanks for asking.)
Another challenge is the language—there’s a lot of Pidgin English construction in the dialogue, mainly dis, dat, an’ da oddah ting kind of phrasing. This version of Pidgin is common on ‘Oahu public school playgrounds, and I think ultimately easier for the non-Pidgin speaker to understand than a more a hard-core version of Pidgin liberally sprinkled with words like hammajang, lolo, and pau. In telling his story Tyler used an authentic interpretation of Hawaiian Pidgin English’s sounds and rhythms that native Pidgin speakers will have no trouble reading, but it requires a little more decoding for English-only speakers. I think this extra work puts it out of the range of most mainland elementary and intermediate readers.
A final red flag that it’s for older kids is the occasional swearing, which might make parents and teachers of younger readers uncomfortable. Don’t worry, the language isn’t a gratuitous Sopranos-bar-of-soap-on-the-tongue fest and it’s used to good effect. Yes, I understand kids know, hear, and use these words, but parents and teachers are the ones who buy the books, and in their eyes, there’s a big difference between what’s appropriate for sixth and eighth grade. It’s the only reason I mentioned it.
I loved this book and can’t recommend it too highly. It’s the kind of novel that makes you think about all the Landons in the world and the DeSilvas next door. Readers looking to remember growing up in Hawaii or wanting to experience life as an island kid are in for a real treat.
‘Ewa Which Way by Tyler Miranda is published by Bamboo Ridge Press and is available in trade paperback at most Hawaii bookstores and Costco or online at Bamboo Ridge Press, SPD, Barnes & Noble, or Amazon.