I just discovered him recently, and realized how very behind I’ve been on American culture. Between all the science fiction and fantasy I read as a kid and all the non-fiction I’m forced to read now, it’s hard to find a book so carefully researched to be brain food and so intensely written that you can’t help but read it, even if you’re halfway through the first draft of an essay due in 14 hours.
I’m reading Michener’s Hawaii. For those of you who aren’t familiar with Michener’s work (depressing thought!) he focuses in on a place – Mexico, Alaska, Hawaii – and traces its history from geological formation to the present (well, the present he’s writing from, so 1959 in this case,) focusing on the groups that come and settle there (in chronological order) and how they and their desecendents deal with newcomers, changing times, etc. So in Hawaii, the Polynesians migrate to Hawaii, meet the missionaries and whalers, then the Chinese, and the Japanese, with family geneologies, intermarriages, and relationships alluded to throughout. All main characters are fictional reflections of individuals and forces in the region’s history – a trained eye will recognize the players under different names, and someone looking into Hawaii after reading will recognize some characters with delight. Shigeo Sakagawa, the smart, pushy Nisei army vet who fought in Italy and went to Harvard, is Senator Spark Matsunaga “through a mirror, darkly,” while the Hales, Hoxworths, and Whipples reflect Sanford B. Dole (yes, of the pineapples) and the missionaries that overthrew the native Hawaiian monarchy and forced American annexation.
It’s a monster of a book (937 pages) so I skimmed it first. Reading it slowly the second time, I found a passage that sang to me. It’s a conversation between Bromley Hale and his father, Hoxworth. Hoxworth is the latest and most powerful scion of the missionary families that ruled Hawaii. Bromley, his son, has just gotten expelled from Punahou for a brilliant and scandalous essay on the missionaries. The two talk at night:
“You and your father and all your generations used to sit up here, Dad, and look down at Honolulu and dream of controlling it. Every streetcar that ran, every boat that came to port did so at your command. I appreciate that. It’s a noble drive, a civilizing one. Sometime’s I’ve caught a glimpse of such a life for myself. But it’s always passed, Dad. I just don’t have that vision, and you’ve got to find someone who has, or you and I will both go broke.
“Don’t you have any vision at all?” Hoxworth asked quietly, back in the shadows.
“Oh, yes!” The handsome young fellow pointed to Honolulu, lying tribute beneath them, and confided for the first time to anyone: “I want to control this city too, Dad. But I want to bore into its heart to see what makes it run. Why the Chinese buy land and the Japanese don’t. Why the old families like ours intermarry and intermarry until damned near half of them have somebody locked away in upstairs rooms. I want to know who really owns the waterfront, and what indignities a man must suffer before he can become an admiral at Pearl Harbor. And when I know all these things, I’m going to write a book…maybe lots of them…and they won’t be like the ones you read. They’ll be like The Grandmothers and Without My Cloak, books you’ve never heard of. And when I know, and when I have written what I know, then I’ll control Honolulu in a manner you never dreamed of. Because I’ll control it’s imagination.”
Sweetest passage I’ve ever read. Makes me want to be a writer all over again.
And I needed to temporarily exorcise Michener, who’s been haunting my thoughts all day now. Maybe I can actually finish the Southern Lit and Culture essay due today.
HOKAY, back to work.