4 Fall Books About Hawai‘i Are Making a Splash

These books get Hawai‘i right.

Burned by the recent film Aloha’s careless cultural tone-deafness, it was a more agreeable surprise to open a national magazine and discover a memoir, “Off Diamond Head,” that got Hawai‘i right. As New Yorker copies circulated, the Facebook page “Life at Tonggs” rapidly filled up with conjecture about the essay’s author, William Finnegan. 


1. Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life

Now the book to go with the essay, Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life (July, Penguin Press, $27.95) is out and holds up equally well, as an unsparing, unsettling look at how a young man’s surf addiction turns him into a risk-taking reporter in war zones (Mozambique, Angola) and badlands (drug traffickers in Mexico, skinhead America). His prose sings and stings.



2. Waterman: The Life and Times of Duke Kahanamoku 

Love of surf also runs through Waterman: The Life and Times of Duke Kahanamoku (October, University of Nebraska, $26.95), the first comprehensive biography of one of our most beloved local icons. A veteran sports archivist and author, David Davis goes deep and wide to trace Kahanamoku’s life, travels and influence—particularly as an unintentional trailblazer of integration around the globe during a virulently racist era. But the book also details Duke’s mistreatment by the local power brokers in Honolulu, a story left untold in recent times. Kahanamoku was forced to leave the Islands after a vicious campaign against him by The Pacific Commercial Advertiser in 1919. (He sued the paper for libel—and won.) A must-read.


3. Paradise of the Pacific: Approaching Hawai‘i

Another famous surfer comes in for a fresh look in Susanna Moore’s Paradise of the Pacific: Approaching Hawai‘i (August, Farrar Straus and Giroux, $26): Ka‘ahumanu, the wife of Kamehameha I, known for riding waves with élan, breaking kapu (women eating with men) and converting to Christianity. History books entirely written by men often denigrate her as a sellout. 


Prose stylist Moore’s star ascended with sour-sweet, hapa-haole novels such as My Old Sweetheart and The Whiteness of Bones, but her latest is an edgy and often exquisite history of Hawai‘i from pre-contact to Ka‘ahumanu’s tumultuous 30-year career. Unbeatable at checkers, Ka‘ahumanu stayed moves ahead and kept a kingdom together. 


4. The Three-Year Swim Club: The Untold Story of Maui’s Sugar Ditch Kids and Their Quest for Olympic Glory

Not all local heroes surf; some, like new Hawai‘i Waterman Hall of Fame inductee Soichi Sakamoto, coach swimmers in plantation irrigation ditches. His story is cresting thanks to Julie Checkoway’s The Three-Year Swim Club: The Untold Story of Maui’s Sugar Ditch Kids and Their Quest for Olympic Glory (October, Grand Central Publishing, $30).  Although those who saw Lee Tonouchi’s play about Sakamoto in 2011 may quibble at the “untold” part, Checkoway’s work is being compared to No. 1 bestsellers Unbroken and The Boys in the Boat. She’s a good and graceful writer and so there’s hope, with each of these books poised for a breakthrough, that mainstream Mainland America may finally see Hawai‘i as more than a place for hackneyed Hollywood fantasies.



Did you know? Duke Kahanamoku’s habit of  strumming ‘ukulele became part of the 1920 U.S. Olympic team’s race preparations.