It would be hard to find a person who does not feel some kind of attachment to a certain place, especially the one they consider “home.” The people in our lives, the experiences we share and the emotions we encounter all form an intense bond to a specific land. However, there are the few who possess no connection to anywhere. At times family and love, perhaps the two of the most powerful forces in existence, are not enough to draw one close to their home. The protagonist of Albert Wendt’s Sons for the Return Home is a prime example of someone who, due to a generally subdued, introverted disposition as well as emotional trauma, finds it difficult to feel truly at home in both of his homelands.
Throughout the novel, the Samoan boy is conflicted by the two rifts: between him and the land of his ancestors, which his parents consider their true home, and between him and New Zealand, the land he knows but cannot unite with. We discover that in his youth the boy’s parents told him stories about the enchantment and beautiful wilderness of Samoa. He maintains this image into young adulthood, but his only true memory of the place was his gruesome slaying of a wild pig. His own haunting perception of Samoa, however brief, looms over his relationship with their home. It becomes evident that the boy does not entirely trust the tales and descriptions his parents, particularly his mother, weave. There is also the mysterious ghost of his grandfather that is threaded through the boy’s story. The grandfather is mentioned briefly here and there, and we see parts of his life, but only from the perspective of an outsider looking in—not as one who fully knows and understands. This great unknown and the inexplicable obsession the boy develops over it indicate his ignorance of and distance from his Samoan homeland. It is only when the boy unearths his grandfather’s grace and learns the whole story that he grasps what his association is with Samoa, but even then he feels restless and out of place. He constantly seeks seclusion and eventually resorts to leaving the village entirely for a short span of time. After weeks of attempting to experience a significant bond to the island he finally admits to his mother, “I’m happy here, Mamma…but I don’t think I could live here” (213). There is enjoyment in leisure, solitude and spending time with family, but there is no feeling of belonging.
The boy’s disengagement from his home in New Zealand is much more explicit and aggressive. The fierce racism not only between the papalagi and Samoans but also amongst the islanders themselves ensnares him in a tangle of bigotry, hypocrisy and confusion. His constant desire to exhibit pride in his Samoan heritage isolates him from his peers at every stage of his life. The “pride” he wishes to exude is peculiar in that it rouses hatred rather than respect, and it is for a homeland and history that the boy knows little about and has few experiences with. His awkwardly incomplete tie to Samoa in turn hinders him from learning about New Zealand. His reality is limited to his parents’ stories and the alienation he creates for himself until he meets the girl. After the girl tells the boy that she is pregnant, a narrator states
As you walk the main street of this city, which, through loving her, you have learnt to accept, under the dark dome of this sky that covers this country, which, through loving her, you have grown to know in all its moods and sicknesses and loneliness and joy and colours and cruelty, this is what your heart tells you (129).
The boy’s love for the girl leads him to discover much about New Zealand and almost attaches him to that home. But almost doesn’t count. When their love ended, so did the possibility of the boy ever belonging to New Zealand. Love closed him out as quickly as it had drawn him in.
At the novel’s conclusion, we are left with the boy choosing to leave Samoa and to return to New Zealand. He tears the poems he had written about the girl, signifying his new beginning. But oddly, the final scene does not take place with the boy in the New Zealand airport or walking into a new apartment. It ends with him in the airplane, suspended above the ocean between his two homelands. This hovering between the two places, distant from both, seems to point to the fact that what the boy’s father explained to him in the Samoan bush is true: “Like him [the boy’s grandfather] you see too clearly. And, because of that, like him you will never be happy with things the way they are. Like him you will always be in permanent exile. You will never belong anywhere” (204).