“Lester Higata knew his life was about to end when he walked out on the lanai behind his house in Makiki and saw his long-dead father sitting in a lawn chair near the little greenhouse where Lester kept his orchids.” Thus begins Barbara Hamby’s magical narrative of the life of a Japanese American man in Honolulu. The quietly beautiful linked stories in Lester Higata’s 20th Century bring us close to people who could be, and should be, our friends and neighbors and families.
Starting in 1999 with his conversation with his father, continuing backward in time throughout his life with his wife, Katherine, and their children in Hawai‘i, and ending with his days in the hospital in 1946, as he heals from a wartime wound and meets the woman he will marry, Hamby recreates not just one but any number of the worlds that have shaped Lester. The world of his mother, as stubbornly faithful to Japan and Buddhism as Katherine’s mother is to Ohio and conservative Christianity; the world of his children, whose childhoods and adulthoods are vastly different from his own; the world after Pearl Harbor and Vietnam; the world of a professional engineer and family man: the worlds of Lester Higata’s 20th Century are filled with ordinary people living extraordinary lives, moving from farms to classrooms and offices, from racism to acceptance and even love, all in a setting so paradisal it should be heaven on earth.
Never forgetting the terrors of wartime—“We wake one morning with the wind racing toward us like an animal, and nothing is ever the same”—but focusing on the serene joys of peacetime, Lester populates his worlds with work, faith, and family among the palm trees and blue skies of the island he loves.
"Hamby's Hawaii is less than a paradise, more than a postcard, and definitely worth the trip."—starred review, Publishers Weekly
“Oh my this is a very great collection. Innovative in structure but deeply accessible in every pitch-perfect moment, Lester Higata’s 20th Century brilliantly explores the yearning that is central not only to most great literary narratives but also to every life lived on this planet: the yearning for self, for identity, for a place in the universe. Barbara Hamby has for some time been one of America’s finest poets; with this book, she has become one of our finest fiction writers as well.”—Robert Olen Butler
“Like many of us, I have long admired the smart and surprising poetry of Barbara Hamby, but who knew? She’s a wonderful fiction writer too! I love Lester Higata’s 20th Century, a fabulous first collection of funny, poignant, intelligent, and beautifully plotted stories in which Hamby creates a vivid portrait of Hawai‘i and introduces us to Lester Higata, his sprawling family, and his odd and unforgettable friends.”—Elizabeth Stuckey-French, author, The First Paper Girl of Red Oak, Iowa and Mermaids on the Moon
“Barbara Hamby loves her characters and trusts them, and it shows on every page of these deeply imagined and beautifully rendered stories. Each story seems like a gift, and the collection as a whole leaves the reader feeling as if these people are his own brothers and sisters, cousins, lovers, and friends, sons and daughters, mothers and fathers—one’s own extended family—which, after all, Hamby seems to reveal, they are.”—Paul Harding, author, Tinkers