Prior to downloading this audiobook, I had never read any James Michener novels. After looking at the audiobook’s length, I understood why — 52 flippin’ hours, my friends. If reading a good book is like eating a delicious meal, then reading Michener at times feels like being in an eating contest against a food disposal. Can this story end, so I can do something else with my life? Fortunately I still have a lengthy commute to work, and Hawaii kept me company for a good three months.
The novel consists of six enormous chapters, each focusing on a different historical era. The novel is most famous for its third chapter, a quasi-biographical history of Hawaii’s first missionary families. The missionary legacy in these islands is an embarrassing disgrace; they attempted to eradicate native Hawaiian language and culture, with an arrogant zeal that can only be described as genocidal. And when their toxic ideology and diseases nearly wiped out the native people, the missionaries’ descendants then plundered the wealth of the islands. In Michener’s novel, the missionary families are appropriately monstrous, yet still have qualities of intelligence and compassion (for individual Hawaiians, not the general native population) that make them fully human characters. Historians should pull no punches with the missionaries, but novelists need to make even their worst characters interesting to the reader, and in this regard, Michener’s novel succeeds greatly.
However, that third chapter wasn’t the most interesting for me. I actually preferred the second chapter, a mythological tale of Hawaii’s discovery by explorers from Bora Bora. I’ve read several explanations of how Polynesians were able to find the islands, and I still find it incomprehensible. Yes, they navigated by stars, and followed bird flights — but the distance (2600 nautical miles) is enormous even by today’s standards. How the Polynesians from a millennium and a half ago were able to cover this distance, with their technology, has to be one of the great accomplishments in human history. Michener’s narrative captures the difficulty of this task, and the author also pulls off the difficult task of showing the Bora Borans as primitive yet complex and intriguing characters.
The chapters that followed the third weren’t as interesting to me, but that might say more about my waning attention than it does about the strength of the narrative — the fact that I didn’t abandon the novel is testament to its continued strength. Overall, I though Michener’s “Hawaii” was too ambitious in its scope (was it really necessary to start the novel at the dawn of time?), but the storytelling is strong enough to carry the reader along for the lengthy ride. I’m not sure when I’d pick up another Michener novel again… if I begin a cross-country tour, perhaps.