Wow! This book has it all when it comes to setting and our reading challenge–geography, history, all the different people who make up Hawaii–and the setting is so integral to the story! So many aspects of the story are uniquely Hawaiian, there’s nowhere else it could be set.
I am reading my way across the USA–5 or so books from each state, with an emphasis on those where the setting becomes another character in the book, or where we learn something about the geography, history, and/or people of the state. Right now, we are in Hawaii.
The publisher’s blurb about the book indicated this was a multi-generational story (although the blurb on Goodreads seems to have disappeared), but I had no idea how deeply we would become involved in Hawaii’s history–at least for the first third or so of the book. And, while the blurb also seemed to indicate that the story is mostly set in modern times on the Big Island, the historical part actually ranges across Oahu, Maui, Moloka’i, and the Big Island. It also does a good job of distinguishing the islands from each other for us–the slower pace of the Big Island and the history of the Hawaiian cowboys there, the military and plantation presences on Oahu and its more urban settings, the plantations and the whaling center on Maui, and the leper colony of Kalaupapa on Moloka’i.
Although the primary setting on Moloka’i is the leper colony, we learn that there is more to the stories of the people there than just the disease. We see what amounted to an “underground railroad” for union agitators on the plantations, and the code breaking and radio work that the people there did during World War II, as well as the ways in which families remained connected to loved ones exiled to Kalaupapa, and the medical experimentation involved in trying to find a cure for Hansen’s disease. In short, the colony is much more connected to the other islands than one might guess.
Speaking of Moloka’i, I mentioned on the main Hawaii page that I was undecided about which, if any, of the books set in the colony I should read. I hadn’t realized that Kalaupapa would play such an important part in Shark Dialogues. I’m not sure I’ll read any of the books on the separate Moloka’i list, but I will still read The Folding Cliffs–although Pono and Duke spend awhile fleeing the authorities and bounty hunters in the jungles of the Big Island, so there will be overlap. What I’m particularly interested in, though, is the premise from The Folding Cliffs that the round up was politically motivated, which doesn’t really seem to be part of what Davenport is saying in Shark Dialogues.
She places plenty of blame for the loss of Hawaiian culture and pride on the haoles (whites/foreigners) and colonialism, but I found it interesting that Pono herself is descended from a Tahitian woman and a man of Dutch descent from upstate New York. (These ancestors seem to be based on Davenport’s own family’s roots.) Perhaps Davenport is saying that the Hawaiian people were betrayed and killed by those they loved as well as those who intentionally kept them down. That’s a valid worldview for descendants of colonialism around the world–think of the popular travelogues by celebrities like Mark Twain, which perpetuate stereotypes and continue to inspire vacationers to this day. While Twain was enjoying hula dances and lu’aus, the white haole were making it illegal for Hawaiians to own their own land or speak their own language, and they were forcing Hawaiian women from powerful families to marry whites.
For those who may be triggered by sexual assault or rape, beware that Pono’s story does include this. (For you, I would recommend Middle Son by Deborah Iida, which I also reviewed. There’s not as much of the political undercurrents or history, but it does depict life on the plantations.)
A number of reviews of Shark Dialogues complained that they loved the historical section but not the other 2/3 of the book–the sections centered around Pono’s granddaughters. I can relate–the style is very different, and the lives of these women are more modern, complicated, and sometimes downright unpleasant. But I think that’s part of what Davenport was trying to point out–Hawaiian people today are complicated, multi-faceted people with a multitude of complicated problems. Some of which are a result of the remnants of colonialism that persist–take, for example, Vanya’s work on native people’s issues and the discussions of native Hawaiian young people being discouraged from applying to colleges. It’s tempting to continue to think of Hawaii in terms of the dreamlike island paradise, but at some point we have to come to terms with modern reality.
For me, the most difficult thing has been keeping all of the modern characters straight–remembering which character was speaking, whose daughter she was, what her cultural heritage was, what her backstory was. I’m not sure if it was the change in style or the skip in generation (Davenport mostly skips Pono’s daughters, telling their stories from Pono’s point of view and that of their daughters), or if there’s a feeling of sameness to the voices of the four granddaughters, but I keep getting lost. I may have to actually create a “cheat sheet” for myself, which isn’t an organic way to read a book–so I’m curious if it was Davenport’s intention that these four blend in our minds. She certainly seems to be a talented enough writer to have separated them, and their backstories are quite individual. So why do they keep blending? “To most locals, the girls were indistinguishable, called simply “Pono’s girls,” aloof, of slightly different hues.”
In the years after World War II, their mothers had turned perverse. One married a Chinese descendant of cane-cutters, stoop-work “coolies” with permanently bent backs. Another ran off with a Filipino, a Pidgin-speaking busboy. Rachel’s mother left her infant in Pono’s kitchen, and disappeared forever. Jess’s mother went all the way, eloping with a haole, who took her to the East Coast of the U.S. mainland. In this way, Pono’s grandchildren were all mixed-marriage mongrels, their mothers’ revenge. At sixteen, Rachel would double that revenge, marrying a Yakuza, a walking tattoo.
I wrote in my review of Middle Son a bit about the immediate difference I saw in the pidgin in the two books. In some cultures, a pidgin dialect or secondary language is used among family members as a mark of belonging, and Iida uses the pidgin in Middle Son in this way–Spencer uses it among other Hawaiians to identify himself as a real Hawaiian. But Davenport’s writing seems to indicate that the levels of pidgin correspond to socio-economic status–or at least the perceived status of the speaker in the eyes of the listener. Pono uses a heavier pidgin when she wants to imply a lower level of intellect and understanding–when she wants to deceive a haole overseer, for example, and Run Run almost always speaks in a heavier pidgin. Here, Vanya espouses this view, in this memory of her mother Edita and Edita’s mother Pono:
Silently swearing I will wear my fingers down, my eyes, I will die becoming something better. Smoothing out my English. Swallowing Pidgin, denying it, saving it for home, for “slang.” This tongue I was born with, raised on, this part of my mouth demeaned, thrown out like garbage. Mama trying to keep up with me, ironing out her Pidgin, ironing other people’s clothes, Papa telling her put down the iron, go to Dole, better wages at the cannery. She cringes. All her life the image of her mother’s missing finger . . .
I haven’t finished the book. My impression is that Pono, having failed her daughters, is going to try to make amends by telling the granddaughters her story–their history–and it will be interesting to see what these women take away from the secrets Pono shares. I suspect that Davenport will have some great insights for us on how modern Hawaiians can learn from their history–both the good and the bad.
I’ll post again when I’ve finished the book. This is a fantastic book for our reading challenge!