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Hawaii

Hawaii - James A. Michener If you aren't familiar with James Michener's historical fiction, I'd say this is the book to start with. It was his first big success, and it's the first to feature his winning format of selecting a geographic area, and following it from prehistory into present day. It was first published in 1959, the same year Hawaii became a state, so I'm not sure whether any of its initial popularity might be attributed to the heightened public interest around Hawaii at the time. No matter; the novel is well done, and has certainly stood the test of time. Reading it, one gets a sense of Michener's attachment to the place. He served in the Navy during World War II, and was mainly stationed around Hawaii and the South Pacific (the theme of several other of his works). The entire first third or so of the book explores how Polynesians fleeing brutal tribal warfare in Bora Bora first colonized the islands about eight hundred years ago. The technical details of how such a long journey might have been possible with extant technology were fleshed out about by Norwegian anthropologist Thor Heyerdahl, when he crossed the Pacific in his famous traditionally-built Polynesian raft, the "Kon Tiki" in 1947, about ten years before Michener started writing Hawaii. So, there is a lot of interesting historical context for this novel, but it is not a dry or academic work at all. Michener populates Hawaii with sympathetic and relatable characters from all walks of life, and from a variety of cultural backgrounds. Not to gush, but creating so many diverse characters well must be not only difficult, but it must involve quite a bit of background research. Consider trying to deliver a convincing eighty year-old Tahitian tribal leader in the 9th century! How about the believeable Captain of a New England whaler in the early 1800's, or a Japanese picture bride from the 1880's. There are several dozen such diverse characters in this novel, and each one feels real. It's a true testiment to Michener's skill as an author. Another challenge Michener deftly handles is the weaving of his fictional players into known historical events. Lesser works of historical fiction tend to thrust their characters into the thick of the action (Forrest Gump being probably the most egregious offender), which usually feels inauthentic at best, and more often downright forced. Michener's characters usually experience history the way most of us are used to: as an observer who is not on center stage of the action, but who witnesses history-in-the-making from the sidelines, and who is likely to be touched the events in his own personal way. (where were you on 9/11?) The attack on Pearl Harbor is a good example of this. Hawaii covers the event through the lives of a Japanese-American family who live on the other side of Oahu. They don't witness the action directly, but hear about it on the radio, and are both horrified by the violence of war, and also worried sick about what repercussions they might personally suffer in its wake. The older generation is conflicted by feelings of concern for their loved ones back in Japan, and feelings of outraged patriotism for their new homeland, which has provided them with so much opportunity. One old patriarch aches with guilt at his hertiage, but also still harbors a completely understandable continued pride in Japan's many cultural and historic achievements. I can absolutely believe there were people just so affected by Pearl Harbor in real life. Michener has a very honest and human way of looking at these people and events, and I can imagine that this was bringing something new to the table when it was written, less than twenty years after the actual attack. Such nuanced handling of complex situations makes Hawaii a very satisfying read. It also highlights, by contrast, why the Ben Affleck film Pearl Harbor was such a turd.Ugh. Look at that smug doofus- has he been in anything worth seeing, since Good Will Hunting?Really the only thing I didn't care for in this novel was the character of Captain Hoxworth - the philandering, aggressive sea Captain who strikes it rich in the "Sandwhich Isles" (as Hawaii was known in his time). This is a complaint I have with a lot of Michener novels: he writes asshole characters just a bit too sympathetically. Hoxworth is an opportunist privateer, who fucks a slew of native girls, without a thought for his devoted wife back home. I get that a lot of people like this existed, and they have their place in the telling of history. I also get Michener's point (I think) that it was the uncommonly adventurous types who often played a vital role pioneering new trade routes and developing commerce in remote areas. His infidelity and general douchebaggery may be the downside of the same character traits which were otherwise laudable (i.e. the whole swashbucking alpha-male thing). I just get annoyed with Michener's overly-adoring treatment of such characters. Capt Hoxworth is a dick, and no amount of pioneering spirit will change that for me. Michener is willing to exuse more bad behavior in his alpha males than I am, and since this is my review, dammit, that knocks one star off!Hoxworth aside, Hawaii is a wonderful novel, immensely satisfying to read, and when you finish, you'll find you know much more about Hawaii than most of the tourists who have lounged the beaches of Waikiki.