Hawai`i has a long history of storytelling. The Polynesian people who first arrived here more than 1,000 years ago believed fervently in the power of the word, and though they never developed writing, they memorized long, subtle, elaborate chants to preserve their history.
When Christian missionaries came in 1820, their first task was to create an alphabet, so their future converts could read the Bible for themselves. Hawaiians had seen the power of literacy among foreign visitors and were eager to learn. Within a few decades Hawai`i had one of the most literate populations on the planet.
Newly literate Hawaiians filled thousands of newspaper pages, putting ancient stories into writing. That work now is being digitized and translated into English, bringing a long-lost literature to the modern world. One great saga, of journeys undertaken by the little sister of the volcano goddess Pele, has been published as The Epic Tale of Hi`iakaikapoliopele. This illustrated book is pricey but precious, a collector’s item indeed. But there are plenty of Hawai`i-themed books for not-so-rich readers. Here are a few of my favorites.
A contemporary look at the skills and knowledge of Native Hawaiians is in Voices of Wisdom: Hawaiian Elders Speak, by MJ Harden, who interviewed highly accomplished elders, tapping wisdom passed down through generations. The beautifully written book is illustrated with equally beautiful black-and-white photos.
James Michener, an early master of the multigenerational saga, lived in Hawai`i for years and wrote the famous book called Hawaii. People have criticized Michener’s version of Hawai`i history as inaccurate, but it is fiction, after all, and I think it is true to the spirit and the general trend of Hawai`i history over many generations. I first read this when I was a youngster, and I remember sitting in the car waiting for my mother to buy groceries, reading the incredible first section that describes the Islands’ fiery rise from the ocean. Though I myself had seen amazing recent eruptions, it still boggled the imagination to think that the supermarket and its asphalt parking lot were built upon that fiery base. This classic is now available for the Kindle.
The American artist Georgia O’Keeffe visited Hana, Maui, in 1938. She stayed with a family whose daughter, Patricia Jennings, has written a memoir of that visit. Georgia O’Keeffe’s Hawai`i is illustrated with paintings O’Keeffe did while in the Islands.
Of course my own writing is also a favorite! Mostly it has been nonfiction, like Haleakala: A History of the Maui Mountain and Island Life 101: A Newcomer’s Guide to Hawai`i. I finally ventured into fiction with The Island Decides, a tale of a young mother who “finds herself” when she travels to Maui to reclaim her lost child. I specialize in writing about the history of Hawai`i (The Island Decides is set in 1971, which probably qualifies as history for younger people), and future novels will draw on the knowledge I’ve accumulated writing about Hawai`i’s past.