Hawaii, the first of Michener’s “blockbuster” novels, was also the first of a new type of historical novel. Although Honoré de Balzac, Émile Zola, and John Dos Passos had all written novels that span several decades, none of their works had the epic scope of Hawaii, which covered several hundred years of human history. Another innovation was the attention that Michener paid to historical accuracy, which makes the novel as instructional as it is entertaining.
The novel begins with the birth of the Hawaiian islands in a section titled “From the Boundless Deep.” These “new” lands, totally devoid of life, can be tamed only by the arrival of what the narrator terms a “new breed” of people. This first-person narrator, whose identity is unknown until the end of the novel, is Hoxworth Hale, a direct descendant of several of the families depicted in the novel.
The second section, “From the Sun-Swept Lagoon,” deals with the first human inhabitants. In the ninth century, King Tamatoa and his younger brother flee Bora Bora in the middle of the night for fear that they will be sacrificed to a new god, Oro. Blown off course by a terrible storm, they land on a mountainous island that appears to be habitable. Many of the rituals that the missionaries will confront hundreds of years later are introduced in this section.
The narrator then jumps forward one thousand years to document the arrival of the first Caucasians—missionaries from Yale University. The title of this section, “From the Farms of Bitterness,” refers to the “fire and brimstone” that Abner Hale, the stereotyped embodiment of Calvinistic Congregationalism, preaches as he converts the natives. Hale’s preaching also makes subtle references to the inherent superiority of the white race and Western culture. By contrast, Hale’s wife, Jerusha, preaches a message of love in the school which she sets up to bring literacy to the islands. In a few short years, Jerusha dies from overwork, a fitting death for the woman from whose body would spring a line of men and women who would devote their lives to bringing “civilization” to the islands.
To introduce the arrival of the Chinese immigrants in “From the Starving Village,” Michener begins with the birth in 1847 of one of the most fascinating characters in the novel, Nyuk Tsin. In 1865, her parents are killed by the invading Tartars; soon thereafter, Nyuk is abducted. A Punti cook named Mun Ki, who works at the brothel where Nyuk has been sold into prostitution, decides to take her with him to Hawaii, where he intends to sell her. During the ocean voyage that Mun...
(The entire section is 1086 words.)