Hawaii is one of those books that I’ve been meaning to read for a long time, but have put off because of the sheer size of the thing. Like almost all of Michener’s works, Hawaii is an epic in every sense of the word, and comes in at well over 1,000 pages. I had some doubts about being able to sustain interest in the book throughout its entirety, so I wasn’t in any real hurry to tackle it. But I finally got around to it last month, and though it did indeed take a looong time to get from cover to cover, I’m proud to say I actually did it!
Plot summary (with possible spoilers): It’s pretty much impossible to give a comprehensive summary of a book of this length in a single blog post, so I’m going to have to just cover the basics here. Michener mixes fact and fiction to give a sweeping account of the history of Hawaii, from the beginning of the islands to the mid-1950s.
The novel starts by describing the geological machinations that helped form the islands, and then moves on to discuss the earliest inhabitants who arrived from Bora Bora and Tahiti. Those two topics are given the shortest coverage out of the entire novel, but are fairly interesting nonetheless.
From there, Michener brings the action up to the 1800s, when missionaries from New England settled on the island to help convert the “savages”. This is when character development really begins to take off, and when the complex, interwoven stories of all the major players start to take shape.
Finally, the novel goes on to present the tale of Chinese and Japanese workers who were imported to the island to help work on the sugar and pineapple plantations. Through it all, Michener focuses on a handful of families to give the novel a personal feel — and to show how each generation deeply influenced each succeeding generation.
My Reaction: I have to admit that it was a bit slow going in the beginning. While the geological formations and the primitive beliefs of the Bora Borans was interesting to a point, I think Michener went into far too much detail (and for far too long) for my tastes. I’m not surprised to hear that many people give up on this novel before even getting to the missionaries… there is quite a lot to wade through in the beginning, and it does feel like filler after a while.
But once the missionaries came into the picture, I was hooked. The success of a book of this length absolutely depends on the author’s ability to create compelling characters that the reader will want to stick with through thick and thin. Michener did remarkably well in this respect. In fact, I didn’t even realize how much I liked some of the characters until they were out of the picture. For instance, when Michener mentioned in passing that Dr. John Whipple finally died, I felt sad — even though I didn’t pay much attention to the character while he was in the midst of everything.
Another reason that I think Hawaii succeeds as a whole is the way that Michener makes each successive group of characters even more interesting than the last. Although Chinese immigrant Char Nyuk Tsin’s story started out exceedingly slowly, by the time her character was fully developed, I had invested myself deeply in her. She was truly fantastic!
Yes, there were several boring patches along the way and it does take some determination to stick with Hawaii until the end. But this is a novel that definitely deserves all the critical praise and commercial success it experienced when it was initially published. You won’t be sorry for the effort you put into reading this one!