I first read this book back in my teens, and I was in Hawaii recently and decided it was time to reread it. It has held up really well in the interim. Okay, Michener not the greatest master of the craft of writing, agreed, but he knows how to tell a story.
Here he tells a history of Hawaii through the eyes of the different races who lived it, beginning with the Polynesians who emigrated in open canoes across five thousand miles of open ocean 600 years before Prince Henry the Navigator sponsored his first voyage, navigating only by the stars and a few scraps of oral history. Then come the Calvinist missionaries from New England who wrought such unthinking, well-meaning havoc on the native Hawaiian population, with help from the whalers and traders, who were all then followed by the Chinese and the Japanese imported by the missionary descendants for labor in the sugar cane and pineapple fields, although they sure didn’t stay there.
This epic narrative, 1,036 pages in length, is ambitious and all-encompassing. (He probably thought (or his publisher did) that if he included the story of the Filipinos the book would be too long to sell.) The story of the four Sakagawa brothers and their poor sister (I will never forgive Michener for what he did to Reiko), and the story of the 442nd Battalion in World War II is sobering and instructive, and I’m pretty sure Shig’s story is the fictionalized version of Senator Daniel Inouye’s life.
The story I found most compelling was that of Char Nyuk Tsin, also known as Wu Chow’s Auntie, also known as Pake Kokua. This peasant woman is kidnapped from her village in rural China, rescued from a career as a prostitute by an inveterate gambler and immigrates to Hawaii with him. He contracts leprosy and is banished to the leper colony on Molokai, also known as hell on earth. Nyuk Tsin accompanies him there voluntarily and nurses him till he dies, after which she takes on all the other lepers as patients, which earns her the title of Pake Kokua (Hawaiian for, roughly, Chinese Helper, which really ought to read Saint).
She scratched his grave into the sandy soil, choosing the side of a hill as she had promised, and where winds did not blow and where, if there was no tree, there was at least a ledge of rock upon which his spirit could rest on its journeys from and to the grave.
Finally the authorities in Honolulu, who have been supremely indifferent to the terrible state of the leper colony thus far, allow her to return home. There, she and her four sons, Africa, America, Australia, and Asia (really, and the whole Chinese name thing is fascinating, and dizzying), get their hui working to found a financial dynasty that would eventually buy the land out from under the descendants of the missionaries. This book is worth reading for Nyuk Tsin’s story alone. I defy you not to tear up when she returns to Molokai to sit next to her husband’s grave and report to him on the state of their family.
There is an hilarious scene where one of the missionary descendents writes a marvelous expose entitled
They Couldn’t Have been Seasick All the Time
There was Friggin’ in the Riggin’
which is about exactly what you think it is about. I only wish Michener had let us read the whole thing, and I would love to have seen the original source material he got that from. I am also intensely curious as to what the Islanders themselves think of Michener’s book, and how close it is to the truth. I have googled madly and found very little criticism of it, or comment of any kind for that matter. Be interesting to know.
Well worth reading.
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