Kiana Davenport

"House of Many Gods"

(Reviewed by Mary Whipple MAR 22, 2006)

"The hula was our oral history, how we remembered our genealogies.  But, for over a hundred years, it was forbidden, along with our traditional art, Mother Tongue, our chants and prayers.  In this way the missionaries cut out our tongues, cut off our arms…Our ways were 'pagan' so they outlawed them—on pain of imprisonment, even death…Without culture, Hawaiians began to die out.  This was how they colonialized our islands."

Long popular with lovers of Hawaiiana for Shark Dialogues, her moving, three-generational family saga illustrating the history of the Big Island, Kiana Davenport will win many more fans with this latest novel, set on the Wai'anae Coast of Oahu.  With her lush descriptions of the topography and the almost operatic rhythm of her language, Davenport establishes the setting as the "wild place, the untutored place, where the Grand Tutu of the coast, the rugged Wai'anae Mountains, watched over the generations."  These traditional coastal towns, more than thirty miles west of Honolulu value their history, its "many-layered legends, [and] reverence for the old ways, the good ways."  But the towns and residents are not welcoming of strangers.  "Last holdout of pure-blood Hawaiians, it was the skill of Wai'anae to keep outsiders out."

Beginning in 1964, the novel focuses on Ana Kapakahi, a young girl from the poor coastal village Nanakuli, who is being raised by her extended family, her mother having departed for the mainland and a better life.  Many of the elders in her family and neighborhood adhere to the old spiritual and cultural traditions, and they resent the fact that much of the land in these mountains has been seized by the US military, ending the Hawaiians' traditional use of the land and despoiling their sacred burial places and shrines.  Traditional holy sites have been bombed, large areas have been blocked by fencing, and ammunition has been stored on virgin land, the resulting pollution from chemicals and unexploded ordinance despoiling the streams and swimming holes. 

Davenport traces the life of the resilient Ana, from 1964 to the present, as she copes with poverty, few opportunities, and inferior schooling, contrasting it with the life of her mother, Anahola (also called Ana), who is living comfortably on the mainland.  She also introduces a new plot element by comparing and contrasting Ana's life with that of Nikolai Volenko, a young child living in the northernmost city in Russia, Archangelsk, to which his father was exiled for "two careless words."  Following the death of his father and his forcible separation from his mother, Nikolai is a child on his own, learning to fend for himself in Moscow by lying, stealing, and, when necessary, pretending to be mute. 

Ana's progress from childhood, through school, college, and medical school, a journey of immense hardship and stress, illustrates her resilience and indomitable will.  Her long-standing resentment of her mother for abandoning her never flags, and she refuses to have anything to do with her, blaming her for many of the difficulties she has with relationships, a focus of much of the novel.  Nikolai, too, manages to receive schooling, becoming a mathematician, but he drops out, eventually becoming a videographer.  The two come together when Hurricane Iniki destroys the Hawaiian island of Kauai and Ana, as a physician, responds to the calls for help, while Niki, on a one-year fellowship to study in the US, arrives to record the events for a video documentary.

Though the author might have used her plot to set up simple love stories in which the cultural differences among various lovers complicate their lives, Davenport goes much further than that.  All the love stories--of Anahola (Ana's mother), Niki and a trapeze artist in Russia, and Ana and Niki--are complicated by the effects of the polluted environments in which the characters have lived, and the author minces no words in describing the physical effects and assigning blame for them.  At the same time, she emphasizes the spiritual values which can sustain believers through all manner of trial.

Davenport, part Native Hawaiian herself, conveys the deep spirituality of the Hawaiian culture, incorporating many of the rituals and legends into her story.  Unique birth rituals, the first birthday celebration, the legend of the menehune (little people), descriptions of the sacred place where the spirits dwell in Kauai, the value of hula and traditional chants, and the reverence for the land all add color and depth to this story.  Her stories of the Hawaiian characters, especially of Ana and her mother, Anahola, show their conflicts of values, their misunderstandings, and the need to "break the pattern of this family," leading to scenes of great emotional power. 

Thematically, the author takes many chances.  The dramatic combination of the story of Hawaii with that of Russia through Ana and Niki, reveals the clear similarities in terms of destruction of the environment and some parallels in their lives, but it also leads to some "stretching" of the plot.  The author's inclusion of the Siege of Leningrad, experienced by Niki's parents, as one of the dramatic elements, for example, and the march in which local Hawaiians try to close military access to "their" base are powerful episodes, but they do not directly advance the action.  

The relationship between Ana and her mother, which could have been the subject of an entire novel, is just one of several important focuses here, along with environmental destruction, seizure of land, and spiritual values, any of which might have been a novel of its own.  Davenport is largely successful, however, in combining them all, ultimately producing a moving family saga, a series of love stories, a number of domestic tragedies, an environmental novel, a political commentary, and a spiritual coming-of-age.  The action moves back and forth among the plot lines as seductively as a hula, as mesmerizing as a chant.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 11 reviews

 



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About the Author:

Kiana DavenportKiana Davenport is of Native Hawaiian and Anglo American descent, was born and raised in Kalihi, Hawaii. She has been a Bunting Fellow at Harvard, a Visiting Writer at Wesleyan University, and a Recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Grant. Her short stories have won numerous O. Henry Awards, Pushcart Prizes, and the Best American Short Story Award in 2000.

She lives in New York City and Hawaii.

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