This novella is made up of the fragmented pieces of Samoan life through the eyes of 10-year-old Samoana, or Ana. Her vignettes sway through her village and talk about both the everyday challenges of living (school, friends, having refrigerators and televisions for the first time, crushes on boys), to the harder realities that she can't be shielded from (incest, family violence, suicide, pedophilia). Her observations are perceptive and wise beyond her years.
This novella is similar to Sandra Cisneros' House on Mango Street -- young narrator, wise beyond their years, living in a small community where everyone's problems are exposed to the perceptive lens of the narrators. In both pieces, we see the social mores of the minority culture (Hispanic and Samoan) through the actions of the people in the "village" as well as a generous sprinkling of cultural phrases. In both pieces we see that there is both devout Christianity as well as debauchery, and in both, kids are often forced to face very difficult situations by themselves.
What made this novella very interesting is that the ebb and flow of the shorter and longer pieces created a kind of tidal feel to the reading, perfect for a story set on an island. The vignettes are musical, meant to be performed, poetic in their imagery, they lull the reader, even in their violence. Through her poetic prose, I think Figiel pulls up from the deep waters the repressed and tabooed subjects like child abuse, and suicide, exposing these issues not so an outside society can judge, but so that her own society can reexamine itself through her prose. Even as a native Hawaiian, then, I am just a tourist in her world.
On the other hand, there is also an allegorical quality to Samoana. In the piece "Pulu Leaves," similar to Cisneros' "Four Skinny Trees," the narrative shifts to metaphor, the leaves speak to her, and she becomes the repository for all our stories. The protagonist may be a young girl, but I don't think this is meant for young readers. I think the age of the protagonist opens up an ability to tell a story without the censorship and moralizing of an adult character. I think through Ana, the story is open and honest. We as the readers bring the morality and censorship.
Rating 4 out of 5Mana Publications/1996/ISBN 983-03-0236-X