I read James Michener’s Hawaii before and during our visit to Hawaii. It was fiction but a good introduction to the history of the state. Michener looks at four groups of people who helped to shape the history of Hawaii, the first settlers from the island of Bora, Bora, the New England missionaries who arrived in the 1800s, the Chinese immigrants and the Japanese workers.
Religion plays an important role in Michener’s Hawaii. The Bora, Bora group are looking for a new place to live because the priests on their island have introduced a god who demands human sacrifice on a large-scale. The king and his brother can’t stand to see their most able warriors and family members dying in droves and they decide to leave and migrate to Hawaii where they can return to worshipping their old god who is not as bloodthirsty.
Michener’s section about the missionaries from New England has been made into a movie with Julie Andrews and Max von Sydow. The missionaries view the Hawaiians as ‘heathens’ and fail to see anything good in their culture or religion. When one of the missionary women is dying in childbirth they refuse to let the heathen Hawaiian midwives help her and she dies.
It turns out the missionary families become the political and economic leaders of Hawaii and eventually get rid of the Hawaiian monarchy and become very rich and powerful running the island. They use their belief in their religious superiority to take over the nation. One of the ways they do this is by making it very difficult for Hawaiians to earn membership in the Christian church. Michener’s Christian missionaries are portrayed much the same way as Barbara Kingsolver describes the African missionaries in her book The Poisonwood Bible.
The Chinese in Hawaii were treated as slaves and the Japanese who were imported to work on the sugar plantations are marginalized by the people of Hawaii until a contingent of Japanese Hawaiian soldiers fights heroically for the Americans during World War II.
One thing I really liked about the book was the strong female characters. While her husband is preaching hellfire and brimstone to the Hawaiians, Jerusha Hale, the woman missionary, teaches the Hawaiian women to read and write and tries to warn them about the dangers of venereal disease if they sleep with the sailors coming into Hawaii’s ports. The Hawaiians put up with Jerusha’s husband because of their warm feelings for her.
Nyuk Tsin is a ‘second wife’ from China who ends up living in Hawaii till she is 104 and despite seemingly insurmountable odds founds a huge landowning empire run by her descendants. She is one smart woman and her family loves and respects her. She arrives in Hawaii in the slave hold of a ship and dies the head of a wealthy corporation.
I wish I could have read Michener’s Hawaii with a book club since it raises so many issues it would be great to discuss with others. Dave is reading the book now so maybe he and I can have our own little ‘book club’ discussion about it.
Other posts about Hawaii………