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Wai-nani, High Chiefess of Hawai'i

James A. Michener’s epic historical fiction novel, Hawaii, published in 1959, remains the top selling book on Hawaii. It begins with the shifting of continental plates that formed the islands and ends in modern time (1950s). We see the Polynesian settlers sailing from Tahiti to Hawaii about 1,000 years ago and bringing their gods, goods and taboos with them. Michener fast-forwards from the first footstep of the Tahitians onto the Hawaiian shore to the arrival of the missionaries onto the Islands in 1820.  He passes lightly over the dynamic period in Hawaiian history, between 1750 and 1819, during which Kamehameha rose to power and European contact was made by Capt. James Cook. Michener’s story focuses on the clash between the white missionaries and the Hawaiian culture. He gives brief mention to Kamehameha and Ka’ahumanu, the most beloved and prominent characters in Hawaiian history and the inspiration for my novel, Wai-nani, High Chiefess of Hawaii. Wai-nani ends where the film adaptation of Michener’s book, begins. The screenplay examines the Christian missionaries attempt to convert the “Hawaiian heathens” to their religion. Before the missionaries arrived in 1820, Kamehameha had ended the practice of making human sacrifice to the pantheon of gods worshiped by the Hawaiians. Upon Kamehameha’s death in 1819, Ka’ahumanu, the favorite wife of the dead king, ordered the burning of the statues of gods that demanded offerings and adherence to strict rules. The stage for a new spiritual beginning for the Hawaiian people was set. This vacuum provided fertile soil in which the missionaries planted the seeds of Christianity. 

Malama, Ali’i-Nui, chiefess of the Island of Maui who greets Abner Hale, the fire and brimstone minister in Michener’s tale, is drawn from the mature Ka’ahumanu. She was a liberated and passionate monarch with an imposing presence, who was much loved by her people. The missionaries viewed the new world order, that she had fought her entire life to achieve, as vulgar. They were terrified at the sight of brown-skinned women skimming gracefully across the waves upon a surfboard. “Her nakedness was a challenge, her beauty a danger, her way of life an abomination and her existence evil.” What is neither elaborated upon in Michener’s book, nor in the movie Hawaii, is the mental interior of this beautiful and dangerous creature and how she evolved within the framework of a very strict society.

There are numerous documentaries detailing this dynamic time in Hawaiian history. Tony Horwitz’s Blue Latitudes, published in 2002, rose to the New York Times Bestseller list and travels in the wake of Captain James Cook’s journeys.  Horwitz’s tone is casual and humorous, but the facts presented about Cook and his discoveries are well researched. In The Rise and Fall of Captain Cook, also published in 2002, Martin Dugard takes a similar walking in the footsteps approach to history. Both of these authors present a more honest portrayal of the Hawaiians involvement in Cook’s death than had previously been done in the past by western writers. The conflict that ended with Cook’s death at the hands of Hawaiians has long been a subject of controversy because Cook did not make any entries in his journal during the last month that he was alive, and the Hawaiian history is an oral tradition. Both of these books have been well received and demonstrate an interest in a piece of history that has been obscured for two centuries. Through the eyes of Wai-nani, the reader is allowed to view the incident from the Hawaiian point of view and to know how that infamous day altered the course of Hawaiian history. The Magnificent Matriarch, a beautifully written account by Kathleen Dickenson- Mellon, gives special insights into the character and daily life of the women of old Hawaii, and particularly that of Ka’ahumanu.  She also wrote The Lonely Warrior, which documents Kamehameha’s bloody rise to power. The respected Hawaiian scholar Samuel Mana Kamakau, who lived during Kamehameha’s time, is credited with the first and most accurately written account of this historical period. Still, his writing is clouded with a Christian point of view. Captain James Cook’s log and journals of John Ledyard, a seaman, and Dr. David Samwell, who sailed with Cook on the Resolution, combine to provide the most reliable accounts of the Hawaiian culture from the European point of view.  Contemporary authors of note include Caren Loebel-Fried. She has invested her imagination into the Hawaiian Islands’ mythological lore. In her book, Hawaiian Legends (2002), she rewrites the ancient stories in a manner palatable to a modern reader. Her collection is complimented with her marvelous wood block illustrations. Kristen Zambucka’s Ano Ano the Seed (1978), part of a popular trilogy, is a poetic rendering of the spiritual side of the Hawaiian culture enhanced with sensual illustrations of Island people. Armine Von Tempski wrote six novels that are set in Hawaii 1929-1940. She had the extreme pleasure of being Born in Paradise, the title of her first novel. She was of Polish descent and lived an idyllic life on the Haelakala Ranch on Maui. She writes, “The magic of Hawaii is forged by nature, soul-shaking and superb, a mighty brewing of soil and sea and air that will remain forever untouched by passing centuries.”  No previous author has attempted a poetic rendering of Hawaii’s great history with a first person narrative. The magnificence of Hawaii inspired and uplifted its inhabitants. Through the voice of Wai-nani, we receive insight into the consciousness of the ancients and the arena of power in which she struggled to rise. The story brings the reader into the social and human motives that led the people to think, feel, and act in ways that are often foreign to us. I attempt to maintain an elegant voice that carries the reader on her journey, compressing time, and manipulating events to maintain a suspenseful, dramatic spine only when necessary. I have imitated the rhythms of their language to lure the reader into the magic of Hawaiian mythological lore.  Even though the story is couched in magical realism that allows Wai-nani to share her life with a dolphin family, I remain true to the pivotal characters, their impact on the Islands and the actual sequence of historical events.              The Conquest of the Hawaiian Islands, aired on PBS, gives an accurate and honest account of Hawaiian history voiced by leading Hawaiian scholars. Since the 1970s, the Hawaiian people have been digging into the archives of their past and trying to revitalize the traditional values of their culture. The Cultural Heritage Center of Kauai and the Center of Hawaiian Studies on Oahu are just two of the examples of people trying to reacquaint themselves with their past and to preserve a proud heritage. Wai-nani rides in the wake of renewed interest in Captain Cook, and a desire to revive the Hawaiian culture. Michener’s masterful, literary achievement was the first major chronicle of the land and its people, but it is time for the thousand-year gap in his tale to be examined. His book covers such an enormous span of history that he was unable to dwell upon the golden years when Kamehameha reigned with Ka’ahumanu at his side. The love affair with the Islands, shared by the millions who visit “the loveliest fleet of Islands that lie anchored in any ocean” (Mark Twain – Letter’s from the Sandwich Islands) will be reignited with a new fierceness in the reading of Wai-nani, High Chiefess of Hawaii-Her Epic Journey.