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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1579

Hawaiiis a multifaceted historical novel with a span of action that moves from 814 and the first immigration of the Bora Borans to the islands through 1954 and the emergence of contemporary Hawaii, soon to become a state. Following a prologue describing the formation of Pacific islands, reefs, and atolls, Michener devotes a section of the novel to each of the major groups who settled Hawaii.

While it is generally believed that Hawaii was first settled by emigrants from the other Polynesian islands, Michener’s precise details are invented. Tamatoa VI and his brother Terero are forced to flee Bora Bora by another group who worship a savage god, Oro, who demands human sacrifices. As his wife, Marama, is thought unable to bear children, Terero is forced to leave her behind and take a younger wife. Guided only by the stars and by old songs and legends—“Then we are sailing with a dream for our guide?” asks Tamatoa—they undergo both adventure and hardship before at last reaching Hawaii. Though they have abandoned the god Oro, Tamatoa insists upon one human sacrifice as they build a shrine to Tane. This god is not sufficient protection, and when the volcano erupts, they are forced to relocate. Terero then sails back to Bora Bora with a small group of men for the first fire goddess Pele. Terero not only brings back her stone, but he also brings Marama, who has conceived a child on their last night together. Through his detailed account of the beliefs of the islanders and how they influence every detail of their lives, Michener sets the stage for the next section, “From the Farm of Bitterness.”

A thousand years have passed, and to Yale College comes Keoki Kanakoa, a descendant of the original settlers of Hawaii. A convert to Christianity, he so eloquently describes the souls in Hawaii waiting to be saved that Abner Hale and his friend John Whipple are moved to offer themselves as missionaries. Whipple is accepted immediately: He is a doctor as well as a divinity student, and a handsome, self-possessed man. Hale is another matter. The Reverend Eliphalet Thorn sees him as “an offensive, undernourished, sallow-faced little prig, the kind who wrecks any mission to which he is attached.” He has a niece, however, Jerusha Bromley, who has been pining after a sea captain who promised to return to marry her. Thorn arranges a match between her and Hale. To Hale’s astonishment, she is a beautiful girl, intensely religious, who has vowed herself to the mission field if her sea captain does not return. Since all the missionaries are required to be married, the brig Thetis sets sail with eleven newlywed couples, four couples to each cabin. Hale, the only one who is not seasick for many weeks, is forced to assume leadership of the group and proves himself to be surprisingly resourceful, resilient, and sympathetic in caring for the sick. He also takes time to study Hawaiian with Keoki. Hale’s inflexibility, however, is evident in his manner of preaching to the captain and crew. They encounter another ship in mid-ocean, commanded by Rafer Hoxworth, a young and handsome but rough and brawling man. It is he who is expecting to find Jerusha waiting for him, and, when he discovers that Jerusha is not only married but pregnant, he attacks Hale, leaving him with a permanent limp.

Arriving in Hawaii, the missionaries encounter Malama Kanakoa, the ruler, or Alii Nui, of the island. To his horror, Hale finds that she is married to her brother, and that Keoki Kanakoa is their son. Though he works to convert the islanders, Hale forbids all intimate contact with the “heathen.” He is not the only one of the missionaries who is outraged when Abraham Hewlett marries a Hawaiian woman. His first wife died in childbirth; Hale and Hewlett delivered the child themselves, following a medical textbook, rather than accept the aid of the Hawaiian midwives. Hewlett is expelled from the mission; Whipple resigns. Both go into business, Whipple as the partner of Retire Janders, former captain of the Thetis and now proprietor of a business on Maui.

Malama is converted, and agrees to new laws for the islands, including forbidding the island girls to swim out to the ships and offer themselves to the sailors. Hale refuses to ordain Keoki Kanakoa as a minister, however, and Keoki, disillusioned, returns to the old gods and marries his sister Noelani. Hale is outraged, even more so when Noelani bears twins. The boy is perfect, but the girl is deformed and not allowed to live. Keoki, unable to live with his religious conflict, refuses any medical aid during a measles epidemic and dies.

Jerusha, who has succeeded in softening some of Hale’s inflexible religious views, dies, leaving him with four children. The eldest, Micah, is the most promising and is sent to Yale. Coming back to Hawaii, he travels overland, arriving in San Francisco with a sense of Manifest Destiny and a conviction that Hawaii must become a state. There he encounters Rafer Hoxworth, who has married Noelani. Before the voyage is out, Micah has married their daughter, Malama, and thereafter Hale will have nothing to do with him. Micah leaves the ministry and goes into business with Hoxworth, who settles in Honolulu. So begin the interwoven dynasties of mission families and Hawaiian rulers.

“From the Starving Village” comes Char Nyuk Tsin, escaping the conflict between Punti and Hakka, the hill people, to whom she belongs. Their women are looked down upon because their feet are unbound. She is purchased from a brothel by Kee Mun Ki, a gambler whose uncle has been to the United States and is John Whipple’s go-between in arranging for the importation of Chinese labor for the sugar fields. On the voyage, Kee Mun Ki learns to appreciate Char Nyuk Tsin. He marries her, but his “true” wife is the village girl he has married in China. All the Chinese were forced to marry before they left: They were then obligated to send money back to China for the rest of their lives.

Though she bears him five sons, Char Nyuk Tsin is never called by her name, for she is not the official wife. The Kees go to work for the Whipples, and they prosper by a combination of intelligence and hard work, until Kee Mun Ki contracts leprosy. Char Nyuk Tsin goes with him as a kokua, a nonleper who voluntarily undergoes the rigors of the leper island, Molokai. There is nothing—no hospital, not even any houses, no food, and no law. Even here the Chinese are ostracized, for it is mistakenly believed that they brought leprosy to Hawaii. After Kee Mun Ki kills the bully who is dominating the colony, because he tries to rape Char Nyuk Tsin, they are respected, and law and order are established. When her husband dies, Char Nyuk Tsin, who has not contracted the disease, is allowed to leave.

She manages to go back to the plot of land that Whipple has given her, and to find her fifth son, whom she sent from the leper colony as soon as he was born. Through incredible work and remarkable intelligence and drive, she manages to educate one son, Africa, who in turn helps the rest of the family. The boys, all named for continents, gradually become established in business, with the aid of Africa, a rising lawyer. Surviving even the bubonic plague and the subsequent burning of Chinatown to prevent the spread of contagion, Char Nyuk Tsin builds a powerful hui (the Chinese term for a combination of interlocking family and business interests).

The Japanese laborers are represented by Kamejiro Sakagawa and his friend Oshii. The latter is a fanatical supporter of the Japanese Empire and is representative of the reason that Hawaiians resisted the ascendancy of the Japanese. The Chinese assimilated, though they retained family and financial ties to China; the Japanese supported a government that, it was feared, might eventually take over Hawaii, and this fear was one reason for the push for territorial status and statehood. Nevertheless, Japanese Americans were not treated as harshly after Pearl Harbor as those on the mainland, and many, including Sakagawa’s four sons, enlisted in the army in World War II. Two were killed, one at Monte Cassino. Goro Sakagawa returned to become a labor organizer; his brother Shigeo managed an education in the United States and became a lawyer, eventually being elected to the Hawaiian legislature.

Woven through the sections on the Chinese and Japanese is the account of the rise of the great commercial empire dominated by the descendants of the missionaries, notably Hoxworth Hale, Micah Hale’s son. The coalition, known as “The Fort,” maintains control over the islands’ political as well as economic life by gradually admitting powerful outsiders such as Hong Kong Kee to the circle.

The decline of the Hawaiians is shown in the deposition of Queen Lilioukalani. The annexation ceremony is a proud moment for Micah Hale, who has worked all of his life for statehood. For his wife, it is a day of mourning, though she maintains her dignity until she sees the Hawaiian flag ripped up by the crowd for souvenirs, and then she hides her face and weeps. The last Hawaiian shown in depth is Kelly Kanakoa, descendant of Malama and Kelolo, who has become a beach boy, surfing instructor, and nightclub singer.

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