May 9, 2019


I love Hawaii! I’ve visited the Big Island twice, and I love it.

However, visiting someplace as a tourist can be very different from living there, and that’s very true of Hawaii. Its physical isolation means that the cost of living is very high, and most items are much more expensive than on the mainland. The popular image of the islands as a paradise means that it is both a tourist destination and a retirement destination. Like many such places, much of the economy is dependent on the service industry, and those who are born and raised there probably have a love-hate relationship with the outsiders who pay the bills.

I’m really looking forward to learning more about the “real” Hawaii. Beyond the stereotypes of the luaus and hula, the colonization and depredation, the surfer dudes and Snorkle Bob.

Here’s my list:

Shark Dialogues by Kiana Davenport (1994) – “Set mainly in contemporary Hawaii, it is a spectacular odyssey through fire and water, a journey that begins in the nineteenth century with the fateful meeting of a Yankee sailor and the runaway daughter of a Tahitian chief. … Central to all is the matriarch Pono, a statuesque, pure-blooded Hawaiian, a kahuna, or seer, whose past is shrouded in mystery. Pono’s love for Duke Kealoha – a man hidden from the world, a man his daughters and granddaughters have never known is one of the most haunting love stories of our time, a love that lasts through sixty years, a love so profound she “dares everything, commits every conceivable act for him.” As the novel opens, Pono’s four granddaughters are converging on her run-down coffee plantation on the Big Island, summoned by Pono in her eighty-fourth year. United by their fear of and devotion to Pono, each woman is of “mixed blood” parentage” (from the Goodreads publisher’s blurb). I’m really looking forward to this one! UPDATE: This was my top pick for Hawaii, but it could be a difficult read for some. Check out my review for more information.

East Wind, Rain by Caroline Paul (2006) – “December 1941. The inhabitants of Ni’ihau lead a simple life. Mostly Hawaiian natives, they work the ranch of Ni’ihau’s eccentric haole owner, who keeps his island totally isolated from the outside world, devoid of cars, phones, and electricity. But then a plane crash-lands there, and although the villagers rescue the pilot, they have no idea that he has just attacked Pearl Harbor” (from the Goodreads publisher’s blurb).

Middle Son by Deborah Iida (1996) – It seems like lately I’ve read a lot of books about adult children moving home to care for aging and ailing parents (both for this reading challenge and outside it). This one covers the intersection of Japanese and Hawaiian cultures within the 50th state of the USA, as well as how the dynamics of family fits into this. I’m looking forward to this one too. UPDATE: This was my second pick for Hawaii. If you are having trouble with Shark Dialogues or think you might, this one is great.

The Folding Cliffs: A Narrative by W.S. Merwin – This one sounds really interesting. It follows a (Hawaiian) family who flee from the (white) authorities into the mountains of Kauai rather than be rounded up and taken to Moloka’i. So while it may not take place there, it’s certainly related to the story of Moloka’i. It’s also related to the story of Hawaii itself–the narrative (in verse) incorporates the colonial aspects of the leper colony on Moloka’i–that the round-up of Hawaiian lepers and their interment on Moloka’i was part of the political takeover by white colonizers. Definitely more of a Hawaiian perspective here than some of the other popular books about Moloka’i. (Goodreads link.) UPDATE: I am reading this, but it’s going very slowly for me. It’s beautifully written, but I’m finding the verse style much more difficult than I found The Golden Gate by Vikram Seth.

All I Asking for Is My Body by Milton Murayama (1988) – The reviews indicate that, while many books either romanticize the colonization and plantation times or decry the evils of the same, this one shows aspects of both the good and the bad from the perspective of a native Hawaiian and in the local pidgin dialect. You’ll note on the map below that I’m not sure as of my initial post on which island(s) this book actually takes place. None of the reviews I read indicated, and the book is not available on Kindle, so I’ll have to wait for my hard copy to arrive before I can (hopefully) find out. However, Murayama himself was born and grew up on Maui, and his Wikipedia page reads as if this book is at least loosely autobiographical. I will update here (but probably not the map) when I find out. UPDATE: Yes, this book does take place on Maui.

The Parrot Talks In Chocolate by Everett Peacock (2009) – “A mythical Hawaiian Tiki bar, and it’s eclectic patrons help tell the story of our young hero as he discovers love in the tropics. Tiwaka, the parrot, trades chocolate covered nuts for words of wisdom and watches the wild and often mystical adventures unfold” (from Goodreads). I’m a little leery of this one–I’m concerned it’s more stereotype than the “real” Hawaii I’m looking for, but we’ll see. UPDATE: Thankfully, my fears were unfounded. This was a nice, easy read. Not my top pick for Hawaii, but decent.

Name Me Nobody by Lois-Ann Yamanaka (1999) – My Young Adult pick for Hawaii, this is a contemporary coming-of-age story set in Hawaii with a 13-year old protagonist whose best friend is falling in love with another girl on their softball team. Apparently the author makes use of the local pidgin, but some reviews complained there were too many stereotypes. I’m guessing, based on the age, that this is more of a middle school age read, but we’ll see. Yamanaka has a bunch of YA books set in her home state.


The Islands at the End of the World by Austin Aslan (2014) – A second Young Adult pick?! And a dystopian at that… This one apparently skews a little older than the previous pick due to language and certain situations. “While Lei and her father are on a visit to Oahu, a global disaster strikes. Technology and power fail, Hawaii is cut off from the world, and the islands revert to traditional ways of survival. As Lei and her dad embark on a nightmarish journey across islands to reach home and family, she learns that her epilepsy and her deep connection to Hawaii could be keys to ending the crisis before it becomes worse than anyone can imagine” (from the Goodreads publisher’s blurb). Makes good use of the isolation of the islands, and also includes pidgin dialogue. An intriguing premise!

Alternate Reads For Moloka’i

Almost every Hawaii list I’ve come across includes Alan Brennert’s book Moloka’i. I’ve noticed a tendency in myself to resist reading those books that everyone puts on their list, which I suppose is counter-intuitive in this kind of reading challenge (especially since I got the idea originally from a “Most Famous Book Set In Each State” list!). I guess I feel that when I do actually read those books they don’t live up to the promise, or they are good books but not nearly as dependent on setting as I’d hoped or expected.

At the same time, since I am trying to cover as much diversity as possible within a state’s geography, history and people, I think it’s important to include a book about Moloka’i. I have The Folding Cliffs on my main list, which relates to Moloka’i, but takes place on Kauai. Once I read it, I may decide that’s sufficient for this challenge. If I want more, however, there are more.

I’m listing the Brennert book here since it’s definitely the most popular I’ve discovered, but I’m also including several others I found that look good, particularly if they are written by a Hawaiian author (which Brennert is not, though I’m sure he has spent a lot of time there doing research).

I will post an update when I decide how I’m going to handle this.

UPDATE: Shark Dialogues by Kiana Davenport actually included a fair amount about Moloka’i. I’ve started The Folding Cliffs, but Shark Dialogues also includes characters who hide in the jungles to avoid being transported to Kalaupapa. (I’m also finding it more difficult than I anticipated.) So I’m leaving Hawaii without a book dedicated to Moloka’i, but feeling as though I got a fair bit of the island in our other selections.

Moloka’i by Alan Brennert (2003) – This is the one that goes on everyone’s list. (Goodreads link.) It follows Rachel, a young girl who is sent to the colony. It sounds like this novel takes place after the Bushnell book below, because many of the reviews discuss how uplifting it is in many ways–that this exile is meant to be the end of her life, but instead she finds friends and a new family and even hope. (There is also a sequel, Daughter of Moloka’i by Brennert, just released in February 2019.)

Molokai by O.A. Bushnell (1960) – This one gets confused with the Brennert book–many of the reviews for it on Goodreads seem to actually be for the Brennert book, not for this one (this one is not about a young girl!). It is available through Amazon, though not on Kindle, and there are several reviews there that make clear that they are for the Bushnell book. It sounds like this one is more about the arrival of Father Damien and other outsiders who try to improve the appalling conditions in the colony. It takes place before the timeframe of the Brennert novels.

No Footprints in the Sand: A Memoir of Kalaupapa by Henry Nalaielua (2006) – This one is a memoir written by a patient at the colony in the 1930s and 1940s. It’s a much more recent perspective than either the Brennert books or the Bushnell book, and the timing–around World War II and around the time when a real treatment was finally developed–as well as the fact that it’s a memoir, make it an interesting addition. (Goodreads link.)

Olivia: My Life as an Exile in Kalaupapa by Olivia R. Breitha (1991) – A second memoir about living in the colony from 1937-1988. Several reviews mentioned purchasing this book at the gift shop in Kalaupapa, so availability may be limited. Similar timeframe to the memoir above, but from a woman’s perspective. (Goodreads link.)

Healing Water by Joyce Moyer Hostetter (2008) – If I didn’t already have several Young Adult books on my list, or there weren’t already a handful of other books about Moloka’i on this alternate list, … For those interested in historical fiction for young people, it’s great to know that this is available. The main character is 13, and arrives at the colony shortly before Father Damien, so there’s some contrast between conditions before and after. Hostetter lives in North Carolina, though, and several reviews complained that, even though she did her homework, it’s just not the same. (Goodreads link.)

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