Winner of an American Book Award, a Lannan Literary Award, and an Asian American Literary Award, Lois-Ann Yamanaka has been in the public eye for many years. Her novels Blu's Hanging and Heads by Harry are based on the experiences of Japanese Americans growing up in Hawaii. Aspects of Yamanaka's life as a Japanese-American cross over into her newest novel, Father of the Four Passages. Like Yamanaka, the novel's main character is a single Japanese mother who lives in Hawaii and confronts issues related to abortion, religion, and abandonment.
Father of the Four Passages is a quick, easy read with a mixture of first and third person narrations and a variety of letters written by and for the main character Sonia. Letters arrive from different parts of the world from her father, Joseph, who has abandoned his family to go on a self-searching quest for himself and for God. Through the letters, we hear of the triumphs and misfortunes of his quest to find in the end the answer to "Seek/and/you/shall/find" (p.203). This answer surprises many in the family, especially Joseph. Besides her father, Sonia's mother, sister and best friend also abandon her. She can only see people leaving her. This has a tremendous influence on her actions towards her own children.
Some of the most unforgettable scenes take place when Sonia talks about her abortions and raising her only living son. The first line of the book states, "Sonny Boy, son of Sonia, the only one I did not kill. Three I killed," (p.7). Sonia goes into even more detail by describing one of the killings: "I try the wire hanger first, of course. It makes me bleed. I drink vinegar and vodka, and suck lemons," (p. 16). It seems she does not want to have children. In the beginning, the reader senses Sonia is ungrateful for her living son. "Here are my fists to crush your skull. Do you want to die?. . .let me choke you, let me throw you out the window. . . [I] watch him drop off the bed head first," (p.3 and 8). Through the hauntings of her unborn children asking who their fathers are and saying, "God makes no mistakes. . .The Little Priest chose you. . .We all did. We all chose," (p.116), Sonia finds a new hope for the life of Sonny: "This boy I kept was for a reason," (p.70). "You are mine. I will never leave you," (p.157). This realization allows her to reopen her heart to God.
As a child, Sonia grows up Baptist, but she doesn't feel she has the opportunity to truly love and accept God. As a child, Sonia always hears her father say, "God? God who?" (p.17). In response she thinks He is the One who saved her mother's life and helped her. One day she happens to meet a missionary. She wants to learn and live with the missionaries and God, but her mother will not allow it. Even with Baptist teachings, Sonia's family says these missionaries "brainwashed" her and she needs to be "deprogrammed" (p.23).
After her parents desert her, Sonia loses faith in God. "They faded, my father, my mother. . .And so faded my desire for God," (p.176). Later in the novel, when her son develops autism, Sonia once again questions her faith. "I thought God was through punishing me. God loves me right? What's going on?" (p.125). She decides to blame God for all her troubles, but she later learns through her friends and family that she is wrong. After her near fatal drug overdose, Sonia's loved ones surround her. Bob, the neighbor who moves in the day Sonny comes into the world, acts like their guardian angel. He protects both of them throughout the novel. Mark, Sonia's best friend, and Bob help her overcome her past. "You got everything you need. He made sure of that, the keeper of dreams. Dead, but now alive. . .Lost, but now found," (p.143). This helpful statement from Bob helps her realize God still loves her. She knows Bob came for a reason. To Sonia, he represents a messenger from heaven who helps Sonia forgive herself, her family and God.
The novel gives the reader and Sonia a good learning tool. Sonia goes through hard stages in her life, but in the end she learns to forgive her mistakes and the mistakes made by others. Through self and spiritual realization, she changes her life to realize, "I am not a Victim to this Life," (p.173). Her story offers a message of hope to its readers. It can serve as an inspiration in that the reader sees that there are people, "angels," in the world to help and protect him/her. One person can make a difference in many lives.
I highly recommend this book. Although some scenes are graphic and disturbing, they play only a small part of the novel and help the reader better understand and sympathize with Sonia. I recommend the book to people going through experiences like abandonment and religious inquiry. This amazing novel is truly unforgettable.