Beatricia: James Michener was a curious, lumbering book-writing beast. He was gigantic enough in his output that he dominated best-seller charts for almost three decades with his extensively researched geographical sagas. Several of his novels were turned into classic cinematic spectacles: “The Bridges at Toko-Ri,” with William Holden and Grace Kelly; “Sayonara,” with Marlon Brando and Miyoshi Umeki, (to date the only Asian actress to win an Oscar); “Hawaii,” with Max Von Sydow and Julie Andrews; and the 26-hour mammoth mini-series “Centennial,” which involved essentially every other TV star of the ‘70s, (think Richard Chamberlain, Raymond Burr, and Andy Griffith). But even though Michener won the Pulitzer Prize for “Tales of the South Pacific,” (which went on to inspire Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “South Pacific”) he’s never really held a place of respect among “serious” American writers. Is he simply too educational? That doesn’t stop me from entrusting you darlings with 1959’s “Hawaii,” the novel that set the 1000-page “family saga” template that he would follow for most of his best-sellers, and which would in turn inspire John Jakes and James Clavell or, more recently, Edward Rutherford and Ken Follett.
Grandpa Felicius: “Storm-ridden, salty and implacable.” No, James Michener isn’t talking about me! He’s describing the Pacific Ocean in the opening section of “Hawaii,” “FROM THE BOUNDLESS DEEP.” As for the reason behind his current neglect, it’s the same reason that’s behind anything else: MONEY. Michener, a Horatio-Alger-ready orphan who never even knew his real parents, became wealthy enough to give away several hundred million dollars throughout a life of patriotic philanthropy. Of course today’s average blog-scribblers would envy and abhor him, if they could control their ADHD long enough to engage with work this voluminous. It is well known that those selfish Millenariums can barely bring themselves to drop a dime in the tip jar of the local tavern.
Cousin Franz: Or maybe it’s the fact that his novels have the pedestrian functionality of Wikipedia entries? There are many things one can learn from “Hawaii,” including tropical botany and Pacific Islander mythology- but the primary thing one learns is how NOT to write. This is just one of Michener’s many embarrassing attempts at impregnating the barren bed of his prose with the strained metaphors of erotic poetry: “Locked in fiery aims, joined by intertwining ejaculations of molten rock, the two volcanoes stood in matrimony, their union a single fruitful and growing island.” Try reading that sentence without discomfort. I’m out.
Trent: Was that Volcano Porn? I’m out!
Hank: The first chapter is nearly 100 thrilling pages of topographical description. I’m out!
Tracey: “These beautiful islands, waiting in the sun and storm, how much they seemed like beautiful women waiting for their men to come home at dusk, waiting with open arms and warm bodies and consolation. All that would be accomplished in these islands, as in these women, would be generated solely by the will and puissance of some man. I think the islands always knew this.” Nice macho nonsense, Michener! I’m out!
Beatricia: No one is out of anything! We will keep reading!
- Several Weeks Later
Tracey: I warmed up a little to “Hawaii” with Chapter Two: “FROM THE SUNSWEPT LAGOON,” the second Novel-Within-the-Mega-Novel. For starters, it has actual characters that aren’t horny volcanos! Teroro is the younger brother of the King of Bora Bora, and he’s decided to travel away to new lands after the neighboring Tahitians try to impose the worship of a new blood-thirsty god. Teroro and the proud, sun-kissed people who sail with him become the earliest inhabitants of the Hawaiian paradise, and we follow their arduous journey through an ocean that isn’t always as calm as its moniker would suggest. Michener’s approach to these islanders and their religion is generous and non-judgmental. Do they stick to stringent taboos, and practice slavery, and consider their slaves as sub-human fodder to be killed off for the slightest transgression? Sure. But let’s just say that Virginians of the time couldn’t claim to be much more “civilized.”
Trent: Very poetic chapter. I particularly liked this sentence: “Bodies in the sand. Tropical drink melting in your hand. We’ll be falling in love to the rhythm of a steel drum band. Way down in Kokomo.” Michener really captures the spirit of the gnarliest of states. I totally read this.
Hank: Isn’t “Kokomo” supposed to be “Off the Florida Keys,” in the Caribbean?
Trent: I dunno, Dad! Who am I, Captain Jack Sparrow? The point is that we’ve learned so much about “Hawaii” by now, that it’s probably best we all chill out and take a breather. “Aruba, Jamaica. Ooooh, I wanna take ya. Bermuda. Bahama. Come on pretty mama.”
Beatricia: We will keep reading!
- Several Weeks After That
Cousin Franz: In the third section of “Hawaii,” entitled “FROM THE FARM OF BITTERNESS,” Michener threads an interesting line. On the one side of the line, he feels the admiration everyone should feel for the vigorous spirit of the selfless missionaries who gave up on all material comfort to spread messages of Christian love to the indigenous Hawaiians, and to chip away at the myriad taboos (or kapus, rather) of a superstitious, ritualistic, sacrifice-happy society. On the other side of the line, there is the sad awareness that these are the same missionaries who carried with them not only NEW taboos, but also much more immediate horrors, like the leprosy and syphilis and chicken pox that devastated what had been one of the last few true paradises on Earth. (Conservative estimates suggest there were about 500,000 Hawaiians when Captain Cook’s European “discovery” took place in 1778. After a century of colonization, that number was down to 20,000.) Michener, in the middle of the line and with the objective vantage of time, knows a further historical truth: the missionaries were naive sacrificial victims themselves, sent as a vanguard, at their own considerable risk, to turn the natives into a receptive audience for the true export of civilization. That export was not Christ, but commerce.
Beatricia: This section features the story of Reverend Abner Hale, a half-critical, half-affectionate caricature of Hiram Bingham I. HB I was the father of quite a few famous Hiram Binghams (HB III brought the world’s attention to the largely unknown Machu Picchu in 1911, inspiring generations of hiking hippies; HB IV helped the escape of thousands of Jewish refugees during WWII). The original HB was also the stern leader of the first Calvinist missionaries in Hawaii, and he kept busy, what with trying to outlaw the sexual promiscuity that characterized those merry islands, elbowing out the French Catholic missionaries, and writing down the Hawaiian alphabet for posterity. The “Abner Hale” of the Michener novel is a complex character, a visionary leader one moment and a creator of dissent the next; as kind to his wife Jerusha as he is coldly oblivious to her needs; an admiring chronicler of Hawaiian culture who’s also a bigot out to eliminate Hawaiian culture. Whether you see Hale as an inconsistent character or as a realistically ambiguous human being might well depend on how much you trust Michener’s skills as a psychological portraitist.
Hank: Babe. We’ve been reading this for three months already, and we’ve only gotten halfway through. Please, be as kind and merciful as the gods Tane and Ta’aroa, and not as fiery and cruel as the volcano goddess, Pele. Let’s stop here.
Beatricia: WE WILL KEEP READING.
Blurbarella: “To– Be– Continued.”