Set in contemporary times, SLEEPING BEAUTIES, while following the life of Clio, chronicles the disappearance of the Hawaiian culture, hastened by the influx of the white mainlanders and the Japanese. Emma, Clio’s aunt, steeped in the culture, imparts to Clio the legends, the myths, and more of traditional Hawaii. Clio memorizes the long unrhymed songs called meles, she is taught about the ritualized violence that occurred when a king died, and she learns about the giant lizard god Mo’o, her ’aumakua or protector, who can assume different shapes. Always Emma reassures her, “I myself have seen it.”
Clio had the misfortune to be born to an impulsive woman and an insensitive father, and after their divorce, she had the misfortune of acquiring a stereotypically cruel stepmother who treated her and her brother “like plants . . . . They’d been given water and food and sunlight, but not much else.” After escaping from her home at age thirteen, Clio moves in with Emma, whose house provides the perfect backdrop for traditional Hawaiian teachings: feather capes, slippers adorned with lace and pearls, and a garden with exotic monkeypod trees and betel-nut palms.
Nevertheless the mainland beckons to Clio; After marrying Tommy Hayward, a famous Hollywood star, she leaves her island home. Clio accepts the Hollywood life with its empty days of lunches and shopping and manicures, surprised at the “ease, the swiftness, of her corruption.” It is in Morocco, the location for a film, that Clio rebels, the catalyst being a party with bestiality slated for the entertainment. Barely escaping from the violent and self-centered Tommy, Clio returns to Hawaii and to Emma and her supposedly mad grandmother who allow her to heal spiritually and physically. Tommy, worried more about adverse publicity than about her, follows. Drawing on the strength that is her as an “island girl” who as Emma has told her repeatedly, “know[s] how to do things...[and is] not afraid,” Clio establishes her own life independent of Tommy but firmly grounded in the old Hawaiian ways.
SLEEPING BEAUTIES is a compelling story of a girl growing up, discovering who she is. It is also a beautiful recounting of the history and myths of the Hawaiian islands.