That’s Epic!

When a friend heard I was planning to go to Hawaii, she gushed, “Oh, you have to read James Michener’s book! It will give you such perspective on the history and culture!”

I had already known that James Michener’s Hawaii was long (I had shelved his books early in my library career) but when I discovered how long (937 pages!!), I dug in my heels. I’m an avid reader and often have several books on the go at once, but almost a thousand pages? And in such small print? No way.

I resisted. I even avoided my friend for a while, or at least avoided sharing my reluctance. Finally, I checked out the book and began the first section, which dealt with the geological forces that created the Hawaiian Islands millions of years ago. Written in 1959 with that overly descriptive John Steinbeck style, blah, blah, blah. I guess it’s okay if you like that sort of thing. I do not.

But following that we get into the story of the Polynesian people who set forth to find a new land. The reasons, the dangers, the omens and superstitions. My friend was right; it gets fascinating!

The Polynesians settle, they follow their ancient traditions, they impact the land. Eventually they are followed by missionaries from America who have heard about the heathen people and are moved to leave friends and families and all that they know to bring Christianity to the pagan shores. Though their intentions may be good, some of their attitudes and methods are questionable. Some positive changes are wrought, but there’s also hostility and suspicion.

The Chinese are brought in as labourers for the sugar plantations. The Japanese then come to work the pineapple fields. The Second World War arises and Pearl Harbour is struck. With each new section, Michener introduces the reader to new characters, contexts, historical realities and outcomes. It really is a wonderful initiation for anyone who would visit these isles.

It took me a while to get through (about two months of intermittent reading, actually), but apart from the first section, it was time well spent. In a way, I almost don’t need to go now – I feel like I know Hawaii and it’s not like the trip is cheap.

Ah, who am I kidding? Michener only informed me up to the 1950s. I need to find out what happened next and experience the spirit of aloha for myself!

Other work I read set in Hawaii

The Aloha Quilt by Jennifer Chiaverini
Jack London in Paradise by Paul Malmont
Roughing It by Mark Twain (confession: I only read the Hawaiian sections)

Movies and Television Shows I Watched

The Descendants
From Here to Eternity (years ago)
Hawaii Five-0 (if you want to be looking over your shoulder all the time)
Soul Surfer

And if you like epic novels, I highly recommend The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill (a former One Book, One Community selection) with settings in Africa, the United States and Canada.

— Susan B.

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