The Books of the States: Hawaii (4 electoral votes)

After a week of rain, wind, and snow (!) here in Seattle, I can't think of a better time to escape into a Hawaiian-themed post.  

The relaxing sun, surf, and aloha spirit has long made the Hawaiian Islands a desirable destination for tourists and famed writers alike.  A young Sacramento Union reporter named Mark Twain remarked that Hawaii “is the most magnificent, balmy atmosphere in the world” during his four-month stay in 1866, while Jack London’s love for the islands (and the local sport of wave-sliding) made its way into works like South Sea Tales and The Cruise of the Snark.  Others like Robert Louis Stevenson and Herman Melville also spent blissful weeks in Hawaii during larger jaunts through the South Pacific.

Yet the literary might of the formerly-known Sandwich Islands can be tough to discern, as a search for “Hawaiian books” is more likely to net travel guides over biographies and literature.   With that in mind (and taking nothing away from Lonely Planet, Frommers, et al), here are my top four picks for all friends of aloha.

  • Hawaii by James Michener: Starting with its birth from underwater veins of bubbling molten lava, Michener pours millions of years of geology and anthropology into a thick tome that reveals a deep appreciation for Hawaii.   Some argue that 960 pages make this a literary doorstop (and some Hawaiians are opposed to the work in general) , but you’d be hard-pressed to find a more thorough look at Hawaiian history.
  • Eddie Would Go by Stuart Holmes Coleman: Drive along the North Shore of Oahu, and you are bound to see vehicles adorned with stickers proclaiming "Eddie Would Go."  The Eddie in question is legendary big wave surfer and native Hawaiian Eddie Aikau, and Coleman does the famed waterman justice with this moving biography.  (Side note: I just finished Coleman’s latest work, Fierce Heart: The Story of Makaha and the Soul of Hawai'ian Surfing and believe it to be as engaging as Eddie Would Go.)
  • Dreams from My Father by Barack Obama: Well before throwing the first presidential shaka in Inauguration history, Barack Obama struggled with the complexities of race while growing up in 1970's Honolulu.  The motivation to find his “authentic” self began in Hawaii’s capital city, and soon famously took him to Harvard, Chicago, and Kenya.  Yet while Dreams from My Father may not invoke the same plumeria-laden trade winds as the above titles, its roots are still distinctly Hawaiian. 
  • Moloka’i by Alan Brennert: Brennert’s tale of triumph and tragedy in early 20th century Hawaii has been praised by critics for its compelling storyline and accurate representation of traditional Hawaiian customs.  His follow-up, Honolulu, published just last week and has already received early acclaim from Moloka'i fans.

Other notable reads from the Aloha State:  Sandra Kimberley Hall’s beautiful pocket bio on the iconic Duke Kahanamoku, David E. Stannard’s Honor Killing (a look at one of the many “trials of the century”), Rick Carroll's biography of the pride of Makaha, IZ: Voice of the People, and the often-overlooked Hawai'i's Story by Queen Lili'uokalani.


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Comments (5)

I would also vote for "The House Without A Key," the first Charlie Chan mystery by Earl Derr Biggers. It paints a respectfully vivid, multicultural view of Hawaii in 1925, an alluring place where the colonial experience of romantic isolation and dangerous intrigue lies not too far beneath the modern facade.

Posted by: aging lit major | Friday March 13, 2009 at 5:03 AM

It kind of makes me sad that only 4 books could be listed since we only have 4 electoral votes. There are a lot of wonderful books about living in Hawaii by local authors. Wild Meat and the Bully Burgers by Lois Ann Yamanaka is one of my favorites, Folks You Meet at Longs by Lee Cataluna is hilarious, Obake Files: Ghostly Encounters in Supernatural Hawaii by Glen Grant is another must-read.

Posted by: kasey | Friday March 13, 2009 at 1:50 PM

Aging Lit Major and Kasey: great recommendations and thanks to you both! I appreciate your help in spreading literary aloha.

Posted by: Dave | Friday March 13, 2009 at 2:05 PM


Posted by: ggggggggggg | Wednesday December 16, 2009 at 5:21 AM


Posted by: s | Wednesday December 16, 2009 at 5:23 AM

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