Hawaii Bookshelf

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Those seeking to learn more about Hawaii’s fascinating past have no shortage of texts from which to choose. Here are two of my favorites.

Captive Paradise, by James L. Haley

Captive Paradise by James L. HaleyI particularly like James L. Haley’s “Captive Paradise: A History of Hawaii,” published in 2014, which covers the period between Captain Cook’s arrival in 1778 and statehood in 1959. Unlike many other recent Hawaiian histories, this work takes a refreshingly balanced tone, acknowledging the bad behavior of mainlanders without casting Hawaiians exclusively as helpless victims. For example, “Academic discussion of the sandalwood trade usually treats it as an exponent of American exploitative imperialism,” Haley explains, “but once the scent of profit was in the air, there is no question that [King] Kamehameha knew how to cash in with little prompting from American traders.” The book becomes a page-turner when describing the conquests of Kamehameha I and the coup that led to the downfall of Queen Liliuokalani.

Letters from Hawaii, by Mark Twain

“MarkWorking as a newspaper correspondent, Mark Twain spent four months in 1866 exploring the Sandwich Islands, as Hawaii was then known in the West. Admittedly, some passages in “Letters from Hawaii” won’t be of much interest to the average traveler; explanations of local politics and commerce, while surely important to his businessmen readers on the mainland, don’t make for especially gripping reading today. But his descriptions of his travels among the islands could inspire me to book return tickets on the next available flight. Near Kailua, for example, he sometimes “entered small basins walled in with low cliffs … The rich verdant hue of these fairy parks was relieved and varied by the splendid carmine tassels of the ohia tree. Nothing was lacking but the fairies themselves.” And considering the period in which Twain visited, he takes a surprisingly sympathetic attitude toward the indigenous population. “Small blame should attach to the natives for the killing of [Captain] Cook,” he opines. “They treated him well. In return, he abused them. He and his men … killed at least three of them before they offered any proportionate retaliation.”

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