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October 26, 2008

Just finished reading Michener’s mammoth historical novel Hawaii. While he is certainly no master stylist, the sheer scale of the work, the ability to crystalize dense layers of history into digestible essentials, to approach multiple cultures with an attitude of respect and openmindedness – all this is impressive. Michener’s approach to writing has a very Hollywood feel to it (with all the positive and negative implications that entails), and in fact it is no wonder that it took filmmakers just seven years to base a movie on the novel. Although it was nominated for and won several Oscars, I can’t imagine it compares favorably with the book.

I had been told to read this before coming by someone who had lived here, and I understand why. It is an excellent companion to time spent here, condensing the cultural issues of the place for the non-local, providing him with a frame of reference for filing real life encounters with the locals. So many of the conditions and challenges posed by the islands mentioned throughout the novel still persist today, a fact that is sometimes a little scary. The disenfranchisement of the native Hawaiians has only soured, and the materialistic drive for domination of the island’s scant resources that infected each subsequent culture that came to the islands has only deepened. At the same time, the beautiful, truly multicultural (in contrast to the fragmented subcultures of mainland America) society that Michener saw blossoming in the 50s has come to pass – albeit with only a partial inclusion of the native Hawaiians.

One of my favorite passages comes early on, a prophetic admonition at the end of Michener’s lengthy description of the geological formation of the islands:

Do not come to these islands empty-handed, or craven in spirit, or afraid to starve. There is no food here. In these islands there is no certainty. Bring your own food, your own gods, your own flowers and fruits and concepts. For if you come without resources to these islands you will perish.

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