Books set in Hawaii

This post is part of an occasional series where I provide a list of novels or memoirs set in a few of my favourite destinations. In this case, books set in Hawaii…where I will shortly be travelling to with Queenie to celebrate the end of her schooling. You can read more about our plans in my post, “Planning a first-time trip to Hawaii“.

Books set in Hawaii: www.feetonforeignlands.com
Photo credit: Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA)/ Tor Johnson

One of the things I like to do before visiting any destination is to compile lists of novels or memoirs set in that place…or interesting books of history which tell the colourful stories. The pre-trip reading of a few titles provides texture to my experience of the destination, and an understanding of some of the more personal stories of those who live (or lived) there. 

Books set in Hawaii

Hawaii by James Michener (1959)

I love a sweeping epic history, and this one by Pulitzer Prize–winning author James A. Michener is going on the top of my TBR list. The publisher says:

…a classic saga that has captivated readers since its initial publication in 1959. As the volcanic Hawaiian Islands sprout from the ocean floor, the land remains untouched for centuries—until, little more than a thousand years ago, Polynesian seafarers make the perilous journey across the Pacific, flourishing in this tropical paradise according to their ancient traditions. Then, in the early nineteenth century, American missionaries arrive, bringing with them a new creed and a new way of life. Based on exhaustive research and told in Michener’s immersive prose, Hawaii is the story of disparate peoples struggling to keep their identity, live in harmony, and, ultimately, join together.Based on exhaustive research and told in Michener s immersive prose, “Hawaii “is the story of disparate peoples struggling to keep their identity, live in harmony, and, ultimately, join together.

Hotel Honolulu by Paul Theroux (2002)

I’ve read several of Paul Theroux’s non-fiction travel books over the years. It was his book, Riding the Iron Rooster which sparked an interest in train travel across Asia – an interest which was swiftly quashed by our experience on the train in Vietnam. However, I don’t think I’ve ever read any of his novels.

Hotel Honolulu is described as being a satirical romp – which sounds like a great entree to his fiction writing. The author’s website says about this book:

Welcome to the Hotel Honolulu, a down-at-the-heels tourist place on a back street two blocks from the beach at Waikiki, where middle America stays and dreams. Like the Canterbury pilgrims, every guest in this eighty-room hotel has come in search of something— sun, love, happiness, un-namable longing— and everyone has a story. Honeymooners, vacationers, wanderers, mythomaniacs, soldiers, and families all land at the Hotel Honolulu. But the hotel is as suited to being a crime scene as a love nest. Fortunately, our keen-eyed narrator , a writer down on his luck, is there to relate all the comings and goings. He’s lost money, friends, house, and family, and he has no experience running a hotel. But all that doesn’t stop Buddy, the boozy owner of the place— the last of a dying breed— from signing him on as manager. It isn’t long before the hotel expands to encompass the narrator’s whole universe. His original plan of escape from a life of the mind becomes something altogether different: a way to return to the world he left, the world of imagined life.

The Descendants by Kaui Hart Hemmings (2007)

Kaui Hart Hemmings is an American writer born and raised in Hawaii. The Descendants is her debut novel, and was turned into a movie starring George Clooney which I watched on a plane. It’s a great movie to watch as a bit of pre-trip preparation.

The publisher says about this book:

Fortunes have changed for the King family, descendants of Hawaiian royalty and one of the state’s largest landowners. Matthew King’s daughters—Scottie, a feisty ten-year-old, and Alex, a seventeen-year-old recovering drug addict—are out of control, and their charismatic, thrill-seeking mother, Joanie, lies in a coma after a boat-racing accident. She will soon be taken off life support. As Matt gathers his wife’s friends and family to say their final goodbyes, a difficult situation is made worse by the sudden discovery that there’s one person who hasn’t been told: the man with whom Joanie had been having an affair. Forced to examine what they owe not only to the living but to the dead, Matt, Scottie, and Alex take to the road to find Joanie’s lover, on a memorable journey that leads to unforeseen humor, growth, and profound revelations.

The Curse of Lono by Hunter J Thompson (1983)

Hunter S Thompson was an American journalist and author famous for his writing style, gonzo journalism. The Curse of Lono was originally published in 1983, and had been out of print for years before a signed limited edition version of it was re-issued by Taschen Publishers. Little did anyone know that these signatures would be among his last, as Thompson died a month before its release.

The publisher of the re-released edition says:

The Curse of Lono is to Hawaii what Fear and Loathing was to Las Vegas: a journalist’s news event “coverage” that ends up an unclassifiable twist of fiction and reportage, myth and crazed surrealism. Featuring all of the zany, hallucinogenic wordplay and feral artwork for which the Hunter S. Thompson/Ralph Steadman duo became known and loved, the book was at once their exemplary and most eccentric output.

The original edition of The Curse of Lono, published 1983, had long been out of print when TASCHEN brought out a signed, limited re-edition almost a decade ago. The book sold out before it even hit the stores. Now available as a standard TASCHEN edition, this fresh, smaller format, makes the gonzo masterpiece accessible to everyone.

Travels in Hawaii by Robert Louis Stevenson, edited by A. Grove Day (published in 1973)

The 19th Century Scottish author, Robert Louis Stevenson is best-known for his novels such as Kidnapped, Treasure Island & Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. However, later in his life he also wrote novels set in the Pacific Islands after he and his family travelled the Pacific Islands in 1888, eventually settling in Samoa in 1889. During these travels, they stayed in the Hawaiian Islands where he became friends with King Kalākaua.

The publisher says about this edited book of some of his writings from that time:

In 1889 a chartered yacht, the Casco, brought to Honolulu Robert Louis Stevenson and his family. The writer was then already at the height of his popularity in Europe and the United States. He spent the next six months and another, shorter period in 1893 in the Hawaiian Islands, participating in the life of the “royal crowd” and enjoying the best health of a lifetime plagued with illness. Travels in Hawaii brings together many of the diverse works from a romantic interlude in the career of this famous writer.

Moloka’i by Alan Brennert (2003)

For over a century from the 1860s, at least 8,000 Hawaiian people who were diagnosed with leprosy were exiled to Kalaupapa  – a leprosy settlement on an isolated peninsula on the small Hawaii Island of Molokai. In this novel, Alan Brennert re-imagines that experience through the eyes of a seven-year old.

The author’s website says this about the book:

Rachel Kalama, a spirited seven-year-old Hawaiian girl, dreams of visiting far-off lands like her father, a merchant seaman. Then one day a rose-colored mark appears on her skin, and those dreams are stolen from her. Taken from her home and family, Rachel is sent to Kalaupapa, the quarantined leprosy settlement on the island of Moloka’i. Here her life is supposed to end—but instead she discovers it is only just beginning.

The Colony: The Harrowing True Story of the Exiles of Molokai by  John Tayman (2006)

And for a non-fiction perpective on the Kaluapapa exiles, there is this book. The publisher says:

Beginning in 1866 and continuing for over a century, more than eight thousand people suspected of having leprosy were forcibly exiled to the Hawaiian island of Molokai — the longest and deadliest instance of medical segregation in American history. Torn from their homes and families, these men, women, and children were loaded into shipboard cattle stalls and abandoned in a lawless place where brutality held sway. Many did not have leprosy, and many who did were not contagious, yet all were ensnared in a shared nightmare.

Here, for the first time, John Tayman reveals the complete history of the Molokai settlement and its unforgettable inhabitants. It’s an epic of ruthless manhunts, thrilling escapes, bizarre medical experiments, and tragic, irreversible error. Carefully researched and masterfully told, The Colony is a searing tale of individual bravery and extraordinary survival, and stands as a testament to the power of faith, compassion, and the human spirit.

Honolulu by Alan Brennert (2009)

Between 1908 and 1924 nearly 20,000 Japanese, Okinawan and Korean women arrived in Hawaii as ‘picture brides’  – young single women, who had been selected as wives via their photographs (hence ‘picture brides’) by Japanese and Korean men already working in the islands. This novel explores the experience of one such imagined Korean picture bride, Jin.

The author’s website says this about the book:

Honolulu is the richly imagined story of Jin, a young “picture bride” who leaves her native Korea—where girls are so little valued that she is known as Regret—and journeys to Hawaii in 1914 in search of a better life.  Instead of the prosperous young husband and the chance at an education she has been promised, Jin is quickly married off to a poor, embittered laborer who takes his disappointments out on his new wife, forcing her to make her own way in a strange land.

Struggling to build a business with the help of her fellow picture brides, Jin finds both opportunity and prejudice, but ultimately transforms herself from a naive young girl into a resourceful woman. Prospering along with her adopted city, which is fast growing from a small territorial capital to the great multicultural city it is today, Jin can never forget the people she left behind in Korea, and returns one last time to make her peace with her former life.

With its passionate knowledge of people and places in Hawaii far off the tourist track, Honolulu is another spellbinding story of the triumphs and sacrifices of the human spirit from the author of the reading group favorite Moloka’i.

East Wind, Rain by Caroline Paul (2006)

The Attack at Pearl Harbor is a significant event in World War II. On December 7, 1941 hundreds of Japanese planes attacked Pearl Harbor and the Island of Oahu. The surprise attack killed 2,403 and wounded over 1,000 and marked the United State’s entrance into the War. Many visitors to Oahu include a visit to Peral Harbour and the memorials there in their itinerary. This novel is based on a little-known true event that occurred on that day in 1941.

The author’s website says this about the book:

The island of Niihau is an idyllic place, without phones, electricity, or any modern conveniences. The Hawaiians who live there like their simple life; except for regular visits by the island’s owner, the eccentric white man, Mr. Robinson, there is no contact with the outside world. But this changes when, on December 7, 1941, an unidentified plane crashes onto this remote island. Unbeknownst to the islanders, the downed plane is a Japanese Zero; the pilot, who survives the landing, has just strafed Pearl Harbor. Only the Haradas, a Japanese-American couple who also live on the island, understand immediately that the United States is at war with Japan. As the pilot tries to enlist the Haradas help, and the Niihauans wonder why Robinson has not appeared for his regular visit from nearby Kauai, the once peaceful island begins to implode.

In the tradition of Snow Falling on Cedars comes this provocative and compelling debut novel of innocence, identity, loyalty, and betrayal set on a small isolated Hawaiian island in December 1941 — based on true events

Song of the Exile by Kiana Davenport (1999)

This is another novel set against (in part) the Second World War. This novel follows the story of the Meanhuna family for three decades from the 1930s.

The publisher says about this book:

The Goodreads description of this title is:

An epic saga of seven generations of one family encompasses the tumultuous history of Hawai’i as a Hawaiian woman gathers her four granddaughters together in an erotic tale of villains and dreamers, queens and revolutionaries, lepers and healers.

Have you read any great books set in Hawaii?

The links are to versions of each book available at www.bookdepository.com. These are affiliate links.

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Books set in Hawaii: www.feetonforeignlands.com

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