James A. Michener
Those of us who've never been there see the islands of Hawaii as a tropical paradise where life is good, relaxed, and beautiful. Of course we don't live there with the day to day issues of work, eating, putting a roof over our heads, relationships, or culture. We have the idyllic picture.
Hawaii is comprised of a true melting pot of cultures and they usually haven't merged together easily although usually without much overt violence. James Michener studied these islands before they became a state and wrote a saga that covers them from their beginnings as volcanos erupting from the ocean floor. No, that first section isn't exciting but is an interesting geological study.
The books begins when a group of Polynesians undertook a harrowing journey into an unknown section of the ocean across the equator so their quiding stars changed. They were escaping from religious persecution and human sacrifices. Their life on Bora Bora was the most peaceful of the inhabitants of those islands ruled by Tahiti but also the ones most endangered for not embracing the new gods. They went north, settling in the Hawaiian islands.
Hundreds of years later, in the early 1800's, the first Calvinist New England missionaries arrived with their narrow vision of God, their guidance, their love, their medicine, and their diseases. They brought the pervading world civilization with them. Some of them couldn't adapt to Hawaiian ways or the islands. They either left, such as Immanual Quigley, or stayed rigid, such as Abner Hale. Others were able to work with the diminishing number of natives. Some married the Hawaiians. As their children grew up, they had an American education on the islands then were sent back to New England for college education at Yale.
These children returned and started the sugar plantations. In the later 1800's Chinese peasants were brought over to work in the sugar fields. The original workers came from two villages in central China with very different, clashing cultures. Again, some people work hard to gain a little more, like the Kee family, run by the matriach, Wu Chow's Auntie. When leprosy hits the island she accompanies her sons' father to the leprosy island, returns after his death, and continues to raise their sons to get ahead and support their cultural mother back in China.
By the later 1800's, the islands are controlled by 5 or 6 families, alll descendants of the original missionaries. They own the plantations, the property, the businesses, and the shipping. One enterprising reckless son, Whip Hoxworth, is able to develop a pineapple that can be grown and exported. The families intermarry so that they're all related somehow although there is some Hawaiian as well as the New England blood in them. The Chinese are given some advantages, but they still control the islands. The next group they bring over to work in the fields on the plantations are Japanese around the turn of the century.
Again, some individuals rise above. Kamejiro Sakagawa is one who is persistent in his work. He works on the fields for the haoles (white men) and at night for the Japanese. The community continues, eventually bringing wives over from Japan rather than returning as was their original intention. Like the Chinese, they slowly work their way into society and even occasionally break into the lower levels of the ruling society.
World War II affects the islands when Pearl Harbor is bombed. The haoles provide sugar and money, the Chinese provide the accountants and businessmen needed, and the Japanese provide the patriotism and the soldiers who are sent to Europe. They have to work together during the war, yet the cultural separation is still there. At the end of the war they bring more changes back to the Hawaiian society. Demoncrats, unions, and mainland companies are all looking to infiltrate the tight society and open it up to becomes not just an American territory but hopefully, a state.
James Michener brings the islands' history together in a human, understandable, readable, fascinating way. Although fiction, the reader is certain that these characters replace real people from the different historical periods. The beauty of the land and the people as well as the devestation that also happens.
There are continual contradictions. For example, Whip Hoxworth made sure his Japanese workers at the pineapple fields were given some decent food and shelter. Then, at the more established, more powerful monetary sugar plantations clamped down on the Japanese workers there, paying them less and less concerns for them, keeping out the unions and organizers.
The novel stabs into many things - self righteous Christians, human sacrifice, Chinese cultural foot wrapping for women, the loss of the native Hawaiian culture, the imported Japanese who never gave up hope for their country even after given evidence to the contrary, feudalism, agriculture, music, leprosy, and segregation. The book narrator looks at the island's history objectively yet with a slightly avuncular perception.
Hawaii is an excellent book. It tests a modern reader's patience, though. It is not an easy or quick read. There were times I had to break away to read something quicker and lighter. I read this around 35 or 40 years ago. I remember parts, but there was so much I had forgotten. Michener dug under the crust and gave the reader a good historical view of Hawaii in a fiction format.
Notice: Non-graphic violence, Suggestive dialogue or situations
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