“The Color of Air” by Gail Tsukiyama


It’s late 1935 and Mauna Loa is erupting. Residents of Hilo worry that Pele, the goddess of fire and volcanoes, is angry. Gail Tsukiyama sets her new novel, The Color of Air, in this still small city populated mainly by sugarcane workers and fishermen during an eruption that actually took place in the 1930s. The novel, meanwhile, is populated mainly with the children and grandchildren of Japanese immigrants that arrived in Hawai’i in the late 1800s.

Daniel Abe is one of the unusual residents of Hilo who leaves, not just for the bright lights of Honolulu, but all the way to the mainland. He attends medical school and residency at the University of Chicago, about as far away and different from his hometown as he could go. But after a tragic misdiagnosis, Daniel leaves his budding medical career behind for the familiarity of Hilo. The night he returns by steamer, he stands on the ship’s deck in anticipation. Before he can reach the safety of the shore, Mauna Loa begins to erupt.


Daniel watched the surge of lava rise and fall, rise and fall, until the molten liquid pooled and flowed down over jagged lava rock like steaming tears, hot and blistering. It was as beautiful as it was terrifying.


The Color of Air, Gail Tsukiyama (HarperVia, July 2020)
The Color of Air, Gail Tsukiyama (HarperVia, July 2020)

The theme of Tsukiyama’s story of family loss and gains—for which she has been known for the past thirty years—is almost secondary in The Color of Air. Daniel’s return brings about questions as to why his father disappeared when Daniel was just old enough to form memories. And Daniel’s Uncle Koji has his own demons to reconcile with after both his best friend and—years later—the love of his life dies. But the setting and the timeframe of the active volcano—lasting six weeks—light this book. Tsukiyama blankets the reader in the steamy atmosphere of 1930s Hawai’i right from the start.


The sky threatened rain as Koji Sanada approached the green bungalow where the pungent scent of rotting mangoes mingled with a hint of smoke, the bitter remnants of the preharvest cane burning that drifted down from the surrounding plantations.


The volcano isn’t the only thing threatening to erupt, for the racial and political situation in small Hawai’ian towns like Hilo is also febrile. The haole—or white—sugar plantation owners make sure the different ethnic groups in the area—from Japanese, Chinese, and Filipino ancestry—do not live among one another so they can’t organize and ask for better conditions, or even compare notes:  the plantation owners want to make sure one group doesn’t know another is earning more wages for the same work. The sugarcane cutters nevertheless organize a union to demand better treatment.


Like the persistent lava flow, the continuing labor issues were heating up again amid the never-ending Depression. Even though the Immigration Act of 1924 had prevented any more workers coming from Asia to Hawai’i, those who had already worked on plantations continued to rise against the long working hours and low pay.


Although the residents of Japanese, Chinese, and Filipino ancestry are not native to Hawai’i, they adopt many of the local ways, including the belief in the goddess Pele. But when the volcano threatens to destroy Hilo, the haole think weapons of war can stop the lava. Asian residents fear the haole will further irritate Pele. Even Daniel, once employed by one of the most prestigious medical centers in the world, doesn’t shun Hawai’ian folklore.


Outside the winds had picked up, rushing through the trees. Daniel heard a splattering of rain against the roof. And still the rain could do nothing to stanch the lava flow, whose heat simmered and stoked from the volcano’s core. A low roar of thunder boomed and shook. Daniel hoped it wasn’t another eruption, Pele venting her anger at the bombing.


The Color of Air is Gail Tsukiyama’s first novel in almost a decade and it is well worth the wait: a beautiful story set in an even more spectacular setting, one that seems timeless. As the world crumbles under the devastation of climate change, it’s a gentle reminder that humans are but one part of the planet.

Susan Blumberg-Kason is the author of Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair with China Gone Wrong.