Published in 1959, the same year Hawaii became the fiftieth state in the union (as in Hawaii Five-O), this is the first of Michener’s big door-stopper books. It launched his successful career and made him a famous author. Today you can visit the James Michener Museum and Art Gallery in Bucks County, Pennsylvania to see his desk and office. Parts of the book were filmed as the Hawaii (1966) and The Hawaiians (1970).
It’s the story of the Hawaiian Islands and the people who settled them. I find it hard to say much about this novel not already said, so I’ll let the novel speak about it in its own words.
About the original settlers from Bora Bora:
Certainly, when the eleven visiting canoes departed the temple and stood out to sea, each breaking off from the column for its own destination, it seemed that the days of Bora Bora’s greatness had vanished, for it was a dispirited group that occupied Wait-for-the-West-Wind. King Tamatoa acknowledged that in the game of power at the temple, he had permanently lost. All strength now lay with the High Priest, and abandonment of the island to Oro was the only sensible course. Teroro, surveying his depleted ranks, brooded on revenge, but had to recognize that the priest had outwitted him and had stricken down enough of his men to demoralize the rest. The crewmen sensed that their chiefs were disorganized and that ultimate power now lay with the High Priest, but they did not know by what political contrivances the power would be transferred; while the junior priests were so excited by the obvious victory of Oro that they had volunteered, while still on Havaiki, to assassinate both Tamatoa and Teroro and thus to settle the island’s problems once and for all.
The Calvinist missionaries who arrive at the beginning of the nineteenth century:
He was convinced that such surrender on his part must be evil. He had often listened, in the cramped stateroom, to John and Amanda Whipple whiling away the hours, and he had marked their sudden cessation of whispering, followed by strange noises and Amanda’s curious, uncontrollable cries, and he had judged that this was what the church meant when it spoke of “sanctified joy.” He had intended discussing this with Jerusha, but he had been ashamed to do so, for now and again his own great surges of “sanctified joy” had left him morally stunned. Anything so mysterious and powerful must be evil, and surely the Bible spoke frequently of women who tempted men, with disastrous results. So on the one hand, Abner’s imperfect knowledge of life inclined him to think that as a minister he would be far better off with Jerusha not so close to him. She was too intoxicating, too instinct with “sanctified joy.”
And how they are perceived by the native Hawaiians:
But the two antagonists respected each other. Malama knew that the little missionary was fighting for no less than her entire soul. He would be content with no substitute, and he was an honest man whom she could trust. She also knew him to be a brave man who was willing to face any adversary, and she sensed that through her he intended to capture all of Maui. “That would not be a bad thing,” she thought to herself. “Of all the white men who have come to Lahaina”—and she recalled the whalers, the traders, the military—“he is the only one who has brought more than he took away. After all, what is it he is trying to get me to do?” she reflected. “He wants me to stop sending the men into the forests for sandalwood. He wants me to build better fish ponds and to grow more taro. He wants me to protect the girls from the sailors, and to stop baby girls from being buried alive. Everything Makua Hale tells me is a good thing.” Then she would pause and think of her kapu husband, Kelolo. “But I will not give up Kelolo until just before I am going to die.” And so the warfare between Malama and Abner continued, but if a morning passed when duties kept him from the grass palace, Malama was uneasy, for her arguments with Abner were the best part of her day. She sensed that he was telling her the truth, and he was the first man who had ever done so.
My favorite character is a Chinese woman who is kidnapped and brought to the islands as a concubine but manages to raise a strong and powerful family.
Nyuk Tsin looked at her husband with incredulity. How could he hope to lose himself in the hills back of Honolulu, when the police would be on his trail within six hours and when every Hawaiian who saw two Chinese struggling through the trails would know they were mai Pake? It was ridiculous, insane, as impractical as the reliance upon the quack doctor, and she was about to tell him so, but then she looked in a new way at her quixotic husband and saw him as a temporary assembly of earth and bone and confused desire and a pigtail and hands that would soon fall apart with leprosy. He was a man who could be very wise and the next minute quite stupid, as now; he was a human being who loved children and old people but who was often forgetful of those his own age. He was a mercurial gambler charged with hope: he had hoped that the quack doctor could cure him; now he hoped that somehow the forests would hide him. But above all he was her man: even though he was a Punti he had chosen her as his woman, and she loved him more than she loved her own sons. If he had this crazy desire to try his luck once more in the hills, she would go with him, for he was an obstinate man and sometimes a foolish one, but he was a man who deserved to be loved.
There’s even a short sequence which explains a Chinese system of naming children.
I’ve barely touched on this massive book. I give it a strong recommendation, so long as you don’t mind devoting the time to read it. The novel weighs in over a thousand pages and I had problems putting the book down.