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15 Hawai‘i Books to Read This Summer

Our annual quest to track down this year’s can’t-miss books from local authors and publishers.


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Summertime seems the right time to plunge into a stack of books, whether we’re lying on the beach, the couch or traveling. We hunted down some of the best local releases of the past year, an eclectic mix from Hawai‘i-related authors and publishers. We found a debut collection of lyrical stories and poems by professor, poet and yoga teacher Brenda Kwon. We came across a sweeping history of Hawai‘i by Texas historian James Haley sure to spark some controversy. And we caught up with Hawai‘i author R. Zamora Linmark, now teaching at the University of Miami, on the heels of the 20th anniversary of his defining novel, Rolling the R’s. Add in editors’ picks of noteworthy books, and there’s enough essential reading to last all summer long.  


Paradise Lost       

Photo: James L. Haley 

In this compelling account of Hawai‘i’s history—from the brutal (later romanticized) reign of King Kamehameha I to the racist plot of Lorrin A. Thurston to dethrone the queen and lobby for annexation—Texas historian James L. Haley strips away any notion of Hawai‘i as a Pacific paradise.


Just about anyone who picks up James L. Haley’s new narrative history of Hawai‘i is bound to come across something that will make them uncomfortable. 


Mainland readers, who were Haley’s intended audience, likely won’t be able to stomach the shameful coup of a sovereign by power-hungry Americans. Hawai‘i  readers may not be used to seeing its ancient culture depicted in such a no-holds-barred manner—human sacrifice, brutal savagery, licentiousness and all. 


Haley wasn’t interested in making friends. As the author of several volumes of Texas history and the recipient of multiple history and literary accolades, Haley says he set out to tell a balanced account of our former kingdom and republic. 


“Trying to be an honest broker of history is a goddamn thankless task,” Haley says. He bills himself as a historian who tells it like it is, without being weighed down by a political agenda (which obviously leaves those with political agendas—whether on the Native Hawaiian side of the spectrum or the colonialist American side—with raised eyebrows and ire).


Captive Pardise: A History of Hawai‘i


For in-the-dark Mainland readers, Captive Paradise is a sweeping, honest account of how the Sandwich Islands went from kingdom to statehood. Reviews on the continent, from The Wall Street Journal to Publisher’s Weekly, praise it for being exactly that. The reaction he’s received here at home, however, is a different story.


Part of the reason, Haley says, is because he’s white (and a Texan). And when we spoke with him, we sensed his genuine understanding of Native Hawaiian sensitivity to a haole telling this story. The frosty response in Hawai‘i is also partly because Captive Paradise, rather than focusing entirely on the role of missionaries, sugar barons and colonialist Americans in the downfall of the Hawaiian Kingdom, turns the camera on the Hawaiian royal class, as well, and their role in this tragic story.


“Everytime you turn around, the royals are shooting themselves in the foot, as far as keeping their hands on their own country,” Haley says.


Haley is in no way laying blame at the feet of the Hawaiian monarchy. Far from it. Instead, with the sort of wide-frame perspective that an outside pair of eyes can offer, he depicts the self-sabotage and bungled relations of the royals that allowed a plotting Lorrin Thurston & Co. to wrest control of the nation from their grasp. 


“The Kamehameha dynasty, it seems to me, could have come out entirely different if Kamehameha III had not disinherited Ruth Ke‘elikolani, saying that she may be po‘o lua, illegitimate,” Haley says.


Princess Ruth held some 10 percent of the land, or 335,000 acres (now the lands of Kamehameha Schools-Bishop Estate). She was staunchly anti-American, refused to convert to Christianity, and was by all accounts popular and beloved among the people. Had Kamehameha III not scratched her name out of the line of succession, Haley says, the kingdom may have had a fighting chance.


“She would have been a powerful monarch,” Haley says.


Princess Ruth’s possible role in changing history extends beyond the Kamehameha dynasty, too, Haley argues.


David Kalākaua, he says, was envious of her place in the line of succession and her claim to the throne, and he took every opportunity he had to insult her. He stripped her of her Big Island governorship, a post she held for nearly 20 years, and in her place installed a crony from the legislature.


“If Kalākaua had treated Princess Ruth decently, he would have inherited her lands,” Haley says. “By the time he got done slapping her around, he was left to beg and borrow from the sugar barons, and that was his fatal mistake.”


The Bayonet Constitution, anyone?


Haley spent two weeks in the Islands, perusing the state archives, the UH Mānoa archives, the Hawaiian Historical Society, the Mission Houses Museum and any other place that would let him in. The Bishop Museum, Haley says, never responded to his emails requesting access to its files. 


During his time in Hawai‘i, though, Haley says he was told time and again that he wasn’t the one who should be writing this history.


On a trip to the Big Island’s Kīlauea, to see the legendary site where Kamehameha had chased Keōua Kū‘ahu‘ula’s forces, Haley and his research assistant talked with a docent. His assistant let it slip that he was writing a book.


“That was my first experience with what you call stink eye. She said, ‘You know, you’re not the one who should be writing this book. If you insist on doing it, you should submit yourself to the kūpuna and get their approval,’” Haley says.


Haley did nothing of the sort. And that might be enough for Native Hawaiian readers to find insult in his work, Haley thinks, despite the fact that he agrees with Native Hawaiians on the overthrow and annexation and calls for the U.S. to make amends.


“I wound up concluding the overthrow was about as illegal as it gets. There just isn’t much defending it,” Haley says.


Annexation wasn’t about sugar, he says, though he understands that’s a popular view both here at home and on the Mainland. And it wasn’t about missionaries, either.


“The sugar growers were opposed to it, because if Hawai‘i became a U.S. territory, the exclusion act would have kept them from importing Chinese laborers,” Haley says. “It wasn’t so much the missionaries, they weren’t such bad people. It was more their children and grandchildren.” 


Think: the Hawaiian League and the Honolulu Rifles, led by Thurston, with members such as Sanford Dole and William Castle.


“They had gone to the Mainland, to Harvard and Yale and Columbia, and they came back just steeped like a bunch of teabags in 19th-century American racism.”


Ultimately, Hawai‘i’s location in the middle of the Pacific meant the U.S. couldn’t risk it falling into the hands of the Japanese, Haley says. There are no excuses, though. “Hawai‘i deserves to have it made right,” he writes in the last line of his book. 


Lovers of our history will revel in Haley’s small details that aren’t taught in 10th grade Modern History of Hawai‘i. For instance, after annexation the Hawaiian flag was lowered at ‘Iolani Palace, and a 36-foot Stars and Stripes raised in its place to the tune of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”


“At this,” Haley writes, “several members of the Hawaiian Band abandoned their instruments and quit the scene, unable to continue.” 


What will James L. Haley read this summer? 


Walt Whitman and the Civil War

By Charles Glicksberg

University of Pennsylvania Press, 1933


The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict

By Donald R. Hickey

University of Illinois Press, 1989


Two Years Before the Mast

By Richard Henry Dana

A boxed, illustrated Heritage Press edition from 1947


The Good Old Boys

By Elmer Kelton

TCU Press edition, 1985


Texas in 1848

By Viktor Bracht

German-Texan Heritage Society edition, 1991


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