Reading Hawaii is like reading a different country. The the climate, the culture, the history, the people: beautiful, lush, poignant, and resilient. I read several books set in Hawaii, all different, yet all carrying a mystique that that is unique to the Hawaiian islands and the geological, oceanographic, and cultural histories that make them what and who they are today.
I had an opportunity to visit and surf in Hawaii , and I will be forever grateful to Automattic, the company I work for, for that magical, possibly once-in-a-lifetime experience. I read most of the books below before and during my trip there, and I was so glad I did. The history I learned, and the descriptions I read — the intrusion (and infusion) of whites; the leper colony on Moloka’i; the lush beauty; the deep, spiritual connection to the land and the sea; the unending, perfect waves — informed my visit and made it richer, both for appreciating the beauty and for being humbled by the history. If you ever get a chance to travel there, I highly recommend picking up any of the books below before you go.
Novel: The Descendants
Author: Kaui Hart Hemmings, born and raised in Hawaii
Setting: modern Honolulu
Categories: Contemporary fiction
Wow. The Descendants, set in modern day Hawaii, begins in the hospital, with our narrator, Matt, who is looking down at his wife who is in a coma after a speed-boating accident. Matt is Hawaiian, a descendant of kings, and a modern day absent father and absent husband. He was complacent in his life. His wife took care of their daughters, his wife took care of herself, and he would rather sell off his Hawaiian land inheritance than maintain the land himself.
As his wife dies, Matt bumbles through the things that need to be done: encouraging his younger daughter (10) to spend time with her mother before she dies; bringing his older daughter home from boarding school where his wife sent her after they found her snorting cocaine; getting the girls fed; wondering how to deal with their swearing and inappropriateness; trying to be responsible. Trying to become their dad.
What I loved about this book is how real the characters are — how real Matt seems in his coming awake, as he realizes how much he has missed. He becomes responsible but in a way that fits his personality as he tries to deal with daughters who have already become who they are — without any input from him. They are mysteries to him.
This book is funny, and moving, but without being sentimental. As his wife dies, Matt learns about his own life. Until her coma he was blissfully unaware of so many things that he was letting slide. But once she starts dying and he must bring everyone to her side to say goodbye, he realizes what he was missing, and he doesn’t want to miss it all. He doesn’t want someone else to take care of his life for him. And so he steps up to it.
Novel: Song of the Exile
Author: Kiana Davenport, native Hawaiian
Setting: WWII Honolulu
Categories: Historical Fiction, Hawaiian Fiction
Of all the Hawaii authors I read, Kiana Davenport best immersed me into the land, history, and culture of the Hawaiian islands. Her own ancestry reaches back to the first Polynesians who settled in the islands more than 2000 years ago, and with a Hawaiian mother and a Caucasian father, Davenport is intimately connected with the merging of cultures in her native land.
Davenport’s language drips with the beauty of the islands and their people:
Brown skin burnished with gold where the sun pulled out her cheekbones and fleshy shoulders. Black hair a waterfall. Eyes deep, chocolate as kukui, teeth taro-tough and radiant.
As with any fiction with soul and depth, this novel is not just beauty. It is filled with a fierceness, with regrets, and with sorrow. Set during World World II, it is a love story like none I’ve read before. Keo, a jazz musician, and his soul mate Sunny, are deeply in love, and are driven in different directions by their deep passions: Keo for his music, which takes him to New Orleans, and Sunny for her sister who was stolen and taken to a prison camp in Shanghai. They chase each other — and the passions that separate them — around the globe, being ravaged by the atrocities of war, isolated from each other for decades, their hearts always returning to each other and to Hawaii:
He thought how dehydrated he felt, no sea, no humid air. He missed soft voices in his lane, the smell of ginger.
I highly recommend both Song of the Exile and Shark Dialogues if you want to be transported to the lush — and fierce — Hawaiian islands.
Book: The House of Pride and Other Tales of Hawaii
Author: Jack London
Setting: early 1900’s, throughout the Hawaiian islands
Category: Short Stories
Jack London is mainly known for his stories of the deep north, like The Call of the Wild and White Fang, but he also spent considerable time in Hawaii, visiting first in 1907, then staying a while in 1915. House of Pride is a collection of short stories inspired by his time there. Beautifully written, with fine descriptions of scenery and characters, the stories tell of many things, including leprosy, the slow squeezing out of Hawaiians by the whites, and the tension that results from white and Hawaiian romance as it bumps up against each culture’s rejection of the other.
Many of the stories are of the unmeshability of East and West, and the loves that develop but are prohibited when they reach the point of blending by marriage. Other tales are of the leper colony on Moloka’i — of the fear with which healthy people treat the “unclean ones,” of the quarantine on Moloka’i where lepers were sent to decay and die, of the lepers’ isolation and eventual disappearance, of a sending away and squeezing out that reflects the ways Hawaii’s people and ways were squeezed out when whites arrived on their ancient islands.
There was no gainsaying that terrible will of the haoles. Though he killed a thousand, yet would they rise like the sands of the sea and come upon him, ever more and more.
– from “Koolau the Leper”
Each story is poignant, and despite its short 82-page length, the book tells big stories about progress, modernization, and the relentless overtaking of every corner of the globe by dominant cultures.