Rave Review: James Michener’s “Hawaii”

One of the few benefits of the (so far) gentle intellectual decline I am experiencing at age 74 is that I can re-read books seemingly de novo. I read “Hawaii” many years ago; I don’t remember in what period of my life that was and recalled virtually nothing of the story as it unfolded this time.

I just came to the end a few minutes ago and am awash with ambivalent feelings consisting of nostalgia, longing, sadness, wonder and more. Michener had an almost “God’s-eye” view of humanity and the ability to set it forth in clear, eminently-readable and inviting prose. I am grieving the end of the story.

Since I was a kid studying history, I have wanted to understand any historical moment through the eyes of those living at the time. This abiding innocent impulse, I believe, has stood me in good stead to withstand today’s  reflex historical revisionism, which insists on judging all peoples from all times by todays “elevated” standards. While “Hawaii” is a novel, Michener is known for his thorough research. I have the strongest sense that his fictional characters are accurate exemplars of people who actually lived, thought, felt and acted in the times portrayed.

In “Hawaii,” those times really do begin at the beginning: Michener describes the birth and death of volcanic islands in the Pacific. He describes the geography of this small chain of islands which become Hawaii and especially the absence of flora and fauna which are absolutely necessary for human existence. Then told is how some Polynesians living on Bora Bora decide to leave as a result of religious strife (to attain power, one group demands fealty by all to a new god – a god which is a 5 inch diameter red rock). Although not emphasized in the story, it does seem that some human traits as to power over others by any means at hand are enduring.

Although these Polynesian adventurers do not know whether their hoped-for destination even exists, they wisely anticipate its barrenness and bring with them the requisite animals and plants. They brought only women capable of bearing children; leader’s wife is left behind because she is thought to be barren. In this fictional tale of a long journey north, the navigator sees a new fixed star come into view on the horizon. By it, he can now judge latitude; such important discoveries – driven by necessity – punctuate much of Michener’s work. This imagined 8th century voyage of a few dozen individuals in a double-hulled sailing canoe with animals and carefully-stored plants succeeds (barely). These, then are the native Hawaiians, whose numbers achieve about 400,000 by the time New England missionaries arrive in the mid 1800’s. By the early 20th century, as a result of disease and hardship, the number of Hawaiians of Polynesian ancestry fell to only about 40,000.

The remainder of this long, complex, yet very readable book describes the lives of the descendants of the Bora Borans, the missionaries and various subsequent immigrants. Described as well is the intentional importation of first Chinese and later Japanese workers needed to work the sugar and later pineapple industries. The history of each of these groups is laid out in depth, also going back many generations, so as to provide profound insight into each culture. Tales of intermarriage, alliances, conflicts, politics and war pervade the complex story. In other words, it describes life on the Hawaiian Islands over a period of about 1200 years. An appendix sets forth – over multiple pages – the genealogy of every family described in the book. Its extent is remarkable.

While the setting is particular to Hawaii, its peoples and history, in my estimation, the lessons of this novel and its well-sculpted characters can be construed more generally. The psychological, interpersonal, cultural, social and political interactions which occur in this fictional parallax view of actual history paint an accurate landscape of human ontology, applicable to most any thread of history, anywhere. Universal human nature, from its basest, through mundane, to its most noble attributes, is on vivid display in this truly epic work.

Having also read Michener’s “The Source,” I find the power of Michener’s writing unparalleled. In examining my own life, I long to both live it rightly in the moment and at the same time to understand the context, meaning and moral import of my thoughts words and actions. Both of these books allowed me to do that for the characters, whose inner and outer lives were made artfully visible. Because the author gave me knowledge of the ethnic, cultural and family histories of the characters, I was able to briefly and intimately “live” their lives through their consciousness and soon afterward (in the course of the book) observe the consequences, meaning and moral calculus of their choices. Would I might be able to do that with my own life!

To see the entire import of having lived from roots to descendants. That is what I mean by a “God’s-eye” view of life – something I deeply long for yet know I can never achieve. Vicariously, then, Michener offers this awesome simulacrum: upon his characters I can conform elements of my own life, my own humanity and try-fit them to the playing out of entire lives portrayed over historic time in this marvelous book.

Setting “Hawaii” down at the end imparts mainly a sense of loss, sadness, at leaving “beloved (though not always admirable) friends” whose lives I feel as though I intimately observed (In real life, I find it a privilege to merely know someone who is willing to honestly reveal his/her true self; this is rare, I find). The sadness also derives from returning to the less clear realm of knowledge of my own life and letting go of any hope that I can know its import over time  – as I could so clearly do for many of the characters in “Hawaii.” Only the greatest authors – like Michener – allow us to briefly imagine we can escape the limited, Earthbound, time bound, knowledge of our own human existence.

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Author: civil westman

Driven to achieve outward and visible things, I became a pilot, a doctor and a lawyer. Eventually, I noticed the world had still not beat a path to my door with raves. Now, as a septuagenarian I still work anesthesia part-time, fly my flight simulator to keep my brain sparking and try to elude that nagging, intrusive reminder that my clock is running out. Before it does, I am trying, earnestly, to find a theory of everything - to have even a brief "God's-eye" view of it all before the "peace which passeth all understanding."

10 thoughts on “Rave Review: James Michener’s “Hawaii””

  1. My God, the way you describe it, “Hawaii” must be several thousand pages long!

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  2. Gerry D:
    My God, the way you describe it, “Hawaii” must be several thousand pages long!

    Read it on Kindle. I don’t know how many pages, but I can say I spent more than 30 hours reading it. Worth it!

    I forgot to include: ASIN: B00FO60AZK

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  3. Gerry D:
    My God, the way you describe it, “Hawaii” must be several thousand pages long!

    937 in the paperback. Michener’s books are sold by the pound. 🙂

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  4. You state: “Since I was a kid studying history, I have wanted to understand any historical moment through the eyes of those living at the time. This abiding innocent impulse, I believe, has stood me in good stead to withstand today’s  reflex historical revisionism, which insists on judging all peoples from all times by today’s “elevated” standards.

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    Damn we must share a brain at times. I am so annoyed by history revisionists.

    It annoys me when well meaning people want the “n” word removed from Huckleberry Finn, as you and I know it won’t stop there. Another incarnation forward, and all African Americans living in the 1850’s will be described as wearing 21st Century designer clothing. With the excuse offered being:  otherwise some kid somewhere is going to feel badly about her race. (Like children are all that fragile.)

    I have found various valuable first editions and antique books due to my penchant for dumpster diving next to city libraries. Last December, I found an entire set of histories for free. Written by the Abbott Brothers in 1854 and published in the editions I scarfed up in 1906. Worth $ 2o a piece on the internet. They were set on a library with sign that read: “If you want any of these books, please take them.”  The Abbott Brothers gave their history analysis and attitudes a spin not at all given to many historic events that are written by authors these days. Yet the librarian probably  felt “they are too old and represent an out-of-touch philosophy.”

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  5. Happy to hear the effect his writing has on you.  For those same reasons and more, I’ve read every word he ever wrote.  Hard to pick a favorite, but the short list includes Hawaii.  My favorite novel of all time is Voyage: A Novel of 1896, by Sterling Hayden.  Try that one as an example of being planted in the moment.

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  6. I always get James Michener confused with James Clavell in my mind. I think it is because of the size of their books. Anyone else do this?

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  7. 10 Cents:
    I always get James Michener confused with James Clavell in my mind. I think it is because of the size of their books. Anyone else do this?

    Clavell is in a class of his own, so I don’t confuse him with anyone, ever.  They both wrote sizeable tomes, tho.  The first time I flew to Japan, specifically Nagoya, I stopped at a kiosk in PDX and bought Shogun and read it on the plane.  I was shocked at the creativity and intellect of James.  I’ve read all of his books four times now.

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  8. I have recently reread several John D McDondald novels. Of course not in the same league as Michener I had many of the same reactions as you. I actually found one of his books on kindle that I hadn’t read. I have read all of the Travis McGee series. McGee is the model that Lee Child based Jack Reacher. Not deep but lots of fun.

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