I love to see books with unusual main characters–it seems like there has been a lot written recently about the importance of seeing yourself in books, and that goes for kids with special needs too. From that perspective, The Islands at the End of the World seems like a big win, although I have absolutely no personal experience with epilepsy, so I have no idea how accurately it was portrayed. (And the accuracy is important. If there are big mistakes in how it’s shown, then it can have the opposite effect of seeing yourself in a book–you feel even less seen because the people who claim they are seeing you don’t get it right.)
I am reading my way across the USA–5 or so books set in each state, with an emphasis on those where the setting is integral to the story, and those which teach us something about the geography, history, and/or people of that state. Right now we are in Hawaii, and this is our Young Adult choice.
The Hawaii setting is definitely integral to this story. The main character and her father are away from their home in Hilo on the Big Island, visiting Oahu, when disaster strikes in the form of the loss of most modern technology–internet, cell signals, microwaves, electricity, running water, newer cars with their reliance on electrical and computer components, air travel, GPS. Some cars, air travel and boat travel continue in a hit-or-miss fashion for a short time, but then the lack of fuel ends what remains. But the premise of trying to get from Oahu home to the Big Island relies on the island setting–the physical distances involved, the mountains and gullies, and the ocean.
I’m a little divided about the fact that the book is written by a haole–a white “foreigner” or outsider. Aslan lived on the Big Island for a few years, apparently, while attending university, but he wasn’t there for that long and he’s moved back to the mainland. However, to give him credit, he wrote the main characters from that perspective–the dad is a white haole surfer dude who married a Hawaiian, and Leilani, their daughter, is a hapa haole (half-white) who feels like an outsider at school. (Although most of the interactions we see don’t really bear out that feeling.)
He doesn’t try to appropriate Hawaiian culture or history, though Lei strongly identifies with the story of Pele.
To my left, the caldera of an extinct volcano sinks into the ocean, creating a deep-blue bay teeming with coral. Straight ahead, singed by a crown of fiery morning light, is the tall peak of another cinder cone, Koko Head. According to one of my favorite Hawaiian myths, it was at Koko Head that Pele made her last stand on O`ahu. I try to remember the whole story. Pele seduced the husband of her sister, Nā-maka-o-Kaha`i, the goddess of water and of the sea, so she fled to the Hawaiian Islands. Pele thrust down her o`o, her shovel, in Kaua`i, claiming the land as her home, but her sister flung the sea at her. Waves filled the fiery hole made by Pele’s o`o, and she escaped to O`ahu. Each time Pele dug a new fire pit to call home, Nā-maka-o-Kaha`i commanded the rain to wash her away. Koko Head was her final dwelling on O`ahu. Finally, she arrived on Hawai ` i. She ascended Mauna Kea, the world’s tallest mountain measured from seafloor, and dug her o ` o on the summit, far beyond the sea’s reach. Nā-maka-o-Kaha`i used Poli`ahu, the goddess of snow, to best Pele on the mountaintop by freezing her out, and Pele retreated one last time to neighboring Mauna Loa. The Mauna Loa and Kilauea volcanoes remain her active homes to this day. Mauna Loa last erupted in the 1980s, almost erasing Hilo. Pele could command the lava to bubble out of there again at any moment.
Over the course of the book Lei opens up to her father about her feelings of isolation and the attitudes of locals toward haoles. Much of that was in her own perception rather than in how she was truly treated–not that that invalidates her feelings–and most of the interactions we witness are not that negative. She’s accepted by Aukina (the soldier at the camp), the priest on Moloka’i, and the girl on the Big Island when they get back, among others–and by that time she seems to realize that at least some of that feeling of being different is in her head rather than theirs. But while she’s coming to terms with that, she admits she’s even cautious about speaking pidgin:
I understand pidgin pretty well, but I hardly use it. Speak it wrong around a local and you’ll get laughed out of town.
Again, this is sort of a perception thing–this is a natural part of learning a new language, and some audiences are going to be more forgiving than others!
But one thing that bothered me while reading Shark Dialogues by Kiana Davenport was when Vanya argues that all haoles see native Hawaiians as hula dancers or drunken whores. Jess tries to argue that it’s not all haoles and Vanya says that absolutely all outsiders look down on them. I get what she’s saying–and I believe not only in white privilege but also white fragility about that privilege. But there are allies. We certainly make mistakes, but we are there.
Aslan (and as a lifelong fan of Narnia that name gives me a kick!) seems to be trying to say this as well. Obviously, the acceptance (or not) of outsiders by native Hawaiians is a spectrum, with Vanya’s attitude being one extreme. There are, presumably, a lot more people in the middle of that range. The owner of the Tiki bar in The Parrot Talks In Chocolate doesn’t address the issue directly, but seems to have a similar message about accepting the presence of haole allies who live in the islands.
Despite all the discussions about how the locals treat haoles, Lei’s connection to Pele, the occasional mention of Kamehameha–who united the islands and became the first king of Hawaii–and even one or two references to “Sovereign Nationers,” there’s not a single mention of the name of Hawaii’s last queen, Lili’uokalani, or the fact that Americans living in the islands in 1893 staged a bloodless coup and overthrew her, beginning a military occupation of the islands that ended with statehood in 1959. Or that, despite the coup not being authorized by the US government, that government did not return power to Hawaii’s queen. I’m not sure why Aslan made the choice to leave out the fact that those who claim sovereign nation status for Hawaii have a legitimate claim. Obviously, at this point, over a hundred years later, the idea of returning sovereignty to the islands is extremely complex, but even the US government finally admitted (in 1993) that their annexation was illegal, so why didn’t Aslan mention any of that? It would give a little more context for Hawaiian’s attitudes about haole.
Frankly, it seems as though it would take something like an apocalyptic event for Hawaii to leave the United States and become an independent nation again. It’s one of the things that disappointed me about the modern storyline in Shark Dialogues. In The Islands at the End of the World, Aslan makes that apocalypse happen, and chaos ensues–including some racial incidents perpetrated by Hawaiians against haoles, and some that go the other way. With some martial law thrown in as well. In the end, the military abandons the islands to a sort of Lord of the Flies rule. I’m not sure that the military would really leave, even given the idea that they have no backing from the mainland or are “needed for something big” elsewhere, but… okay.
I also wasn’t buying what Aslan was trying to sell about the past connection between the Sheriff on Maui and Lei’s kahuna grandfather, but I’m assuming that story is explored more in the second book, The Girl at the Center of the World. And things seemed way more calm on the Big Island than on the other islands, in a really unrealistic way. Oh, and can we talk about the marijuana scene? Really?! A teenage girl and her dad happen upon a field of pot and he encourages her to get high with him?! Way to reinforce the stereotypes about both the haole surfer/stoner dudes and the brain-damaged stoner natives. Maybe he was trying to get the book banned for the publicity… I’m kidding, but it does make you wonder why that scene was there. Even the haole surfer/owner of the Tiki bar in The Parrot Talks In Chocolate wasn’t shown smoking marijuana, let alone encouraging a minor to do so.
As for the setting itself, some of it seems a little forced–the kinds of things that a transplant to the islands would notice.
I absently hear a gecko call out with its strange kiss kiss kiss sound; it’s walking up the living-room window.
Or it’s interspersed with Hawaiian legends:
I look at the naupaka’s half-flowers—only four petals on one side, looking as though the other four have been plucked. I think of the myth: Naupaka was a princess who fell in love with a commoner. The two were forbidden to marry, and during their last embrace they tore a flower in two, each taking half. One headed for the mountains while the other remained by the sea. The plant grows at high elevations and along the shores, the flowers always incomplete.
But it is the first time any of the books has included any native Hawaiian birds:
Mom says she’s like the amakihi, the smallest of the Hawaiian birds: always in motion and always foraging.
Every one of the books I’ve read for Hawaii so far has included mynah birds, and most have had peafowl… and that’s pretty much it, even though Pono and Duke, and later Vanya and Simon, lived in hiding in the Waipo Valley for months in Shark Dialogues. (There are also some native birds in The Folding Cliffs by another temporary transplant to Hawaii, W.S. Merwin.)
And occasionally, Aslan goes off a bit on ecology, which is fine (and may be why the book is occasionally marked as climate fiction, even though the apocalyptic event has nothing to do with climate change).
The ubiquitous sound of the coqui frogs grows louder when he opens the door. Ubiquitous is one of Dad’s words. It means “everywhere.” Dad actually studies coquis. They’re not supposed to be on the Hawaiian Islands at all. They’re an invasive species. A few years back, the Hawaiian night sounded completely different. Then a Hilo big-box store garden center accidentally brought them to the island. Because they have no natural predators, you can now find three frogs for every square meter of rain forest. They drown out all other critters. “Coqui? Coqui?”
I remember hearing the coquis in Puerto Rico when we were there years ago; I hadn’t known about their invasion of Hawaii. And I’m surprised Aslan didn’t drop other little tidbits, like the mongoose that were brought in to control the rodents and instead have devastated the bird population. Or that the mosquitoes were left behind by Captain Cook and other early white visitors to the islands when they were cleaning and refilling their water barrels.
Given that the pair travel from Oahu to Moloka’i to Maui to the Big Island, often by boat and on foot, we do get some lovely descriptions. We also get a little bit about the differences between the islands, but much of that has to do with how the people on each island treat haoles. Apparently, Moloka’i has a reputation of being particularly unforgiving of outsiders, but so does the Big Island because it gets fewer tourists.
This cityscape doesn’t feel like my Hawai`i. Each island is very different from the next. O`ahu is all stores and glass and glamour. It’s much friendlier to outsiders and visitors and tourists. Probably because it’s those kind of people who mostly live here. Military people, business types, retirees. The Big Island is more my style. Jungle. Lava. Volcanoes. Nothing over three stories high. Nobody honks on the Big Island; no one’s rushing off somewhere.
Oahu gets the most tourists and, of course, has a heavy military presence–in fact the main thing we learn about Oahu from this book is that its daily population is much higher than it could ever support if it were to be cut off.
“There are a million people on O`ahu. Ninety-five percent of the food is imported every day. If the planes and boats with the food really have stopped trickling in, well, do the math. Not to mention gas …” I feel dizzy. “We can all eat pineapples till kingdom come,” I say, trying to joke. “That’s exactly what we’ll be doing, and I’m guessing it’ll come by sometime next week.” Dad isn’t laughing. “Next week! There’s not that little food.” “Hon, it’s not about when the food runs out. It’s about when enough people realize that it’s going to.”
I think we on the mainland tend to be surprised by that number–95% of Oahu’s food is imported every day? Maybe it’s because I’ve only visited the Big Island, which Aslan agrees grows more of its food, but that number was a bit of a shock to me. Perhaps it’s due to the plantations, which concentrate the crops, focusing on just a few specific ones, rather than a whole range. One would think, however, that with the extended growing season, the presence of cattle ranches, and the opportunity for fishing, that the islands wouldn’t need to import quite so high a percentage.
Another area where Aslan gets a little preachy is with the question of religion. I thought he made some good points, and I suppose it is a natural question to come up when faced with what seems like the end of the world, but it was a little stilted and awkward.
“There’s a couple easy outs. One is to say ‘There is no God.’ Another is ‘This was always His plan; we’ve always known about Revelation and we were supposed to be prepared.’ But both try to fit a square peg into a round hole, yeah?” … “Think of it like a scientist. When I design an experiment, I make guesses based on my best understanding. When what I’m studying does something unexpected, I conclude that my assumptions were wrong. I don’t just give up on science altogether.” … “The world has changed, right? Our understanding of a loving God is being challenged by new variables. But what are we supposed to do, reject the entire notion of God, just because the new scenario doesn’t match what we anticipated? Or do we decide to keep exploring? Keep asking new questions to understand something we still have a lot to learn about?” “I think I get it.” “Kind of ironic, isn’t it? I’m angry. But it’s my very nature as a scientist that keeps me from rushing to convenient conclusions.”
Where I have bigger qualms is with what he says about our reliance on technology making this disaster partly the fault of humans.
“Why should I ignore the possibility that we’re responsible? I’d be missing out on some powerful lessons if I absolved humanity.” “How are we responsible for this?” “Easy. Don’t forget, the only thing that has happened here is a power outage. A hundred years ago this thing’s arrival would have resulted in a global hiccup. We became too reliant on an unsustainable resource. Right?”
“Too reliant on an unsustainable resource”?! While I agree that “a hundred years ago this thing’s arrival would have been a blip,” there were plenty of other catastrophic events 100 years ago–diseases, droughts, locusts, etc. We don’t say we grew too dependent on farms or food (though a case can be made for processed versus home-grown). Or vaccines. Or basic hygiene. I suppose what he’s really saying here is that our basic needs–food, water, shelter, with the additions of health and safety–are very much integrated with technology. Which is why those are the items in the earthquake preparedness kit I have in my house in Los Angeles. (And the 6.4 and 7.1 quakes on July 4 and 5 have reminded me and many others of the importance of that kit.)
I’m not sure whether Aslan is saying we should all be building bunkers with emergency supplies and ammunition, or if he’s saying we need to check up on government agencies to make sure they have distribution plans in place for such a loss of technology. I’m guessing this is a theme that’s discussed more in the second book, The Girl At the Center of Everything.
For those looking for Young Adult books for use as part of school classes, I have a few concerns about this one. I honestly was a bit overwhelmed at times by some of the violence as civilization disintegrated. And there’s the marijuana scene, although Leilani herself argues against using. But the topics it brings up might be worth it, as long as students can opt for something different (without being shamed) if the violence is too disturbing.
In general, for our purposes, it was another good read for Hawaii. I still feel that Shark Dialogues would be my choice if I had to pick one (or Middle Son if Shark Dialogues is too difficult), but I’m glad we added this one. Like The Parrot Talks In Chocolate, it gives us a broader perspective of Hawaiian life from the point of view of the haoles who have adopted the islands as their home, some for generations now. It also gives us a great view of the islands geographically–of the distances and differences between the islands.