Sometimes, you just can’t make it to the end of the book. For me, I can’t finish Paradise of the Pacific: Approaching Hawaii by Susanna Moore. With one measly section to go, I find myself unwilling to spend one more minute on the book. I’ve been working on it for over a month. This doesn’t mean that it was a total loss, however. Non-fiction is a fickle genre: even when you’re deeply interested in a subject, and the book is well-written, it’s still going to be somewhat academic and therefore hard to read.
I bought Moore’s 2015 book hoping for a completely engrossing and simultaneously enlightening non-fiction – like Stacey Schiff’s Cleopatra – about Hawaiian history. Traveling to Maui Island, with little background knowledge of Hawaii’s past, I wanted an educational read to bring with me. The parameters for my initial search included a published-by date later than the 1970s and that the book be written by either a Hawaiian or a woman. Specifically, I was trying to avoid a book with an obvious pro-colonialist outlook. I wanted a book that laid out the early history of Hawaii, through the discovery of the Islands by white Europeans, and into the direct repercussions of that.
Moore’s book was releasing in paperback the day before I left for Hawaii, and compared with James A. Michener’s highly recommended but incredibly lengthy 1959 publication, Hawaii: A Novel, hers seemed the best option. Born and raised on Hawaii, and having written two other non-ficiton books concerning the Islands, I was looking forward to a contemporary perspective on a centuries’ old history.
While I can’t wade through the book to the last page, I still consider Paradise of the Pacific a fairly successful read. I learned a lot about Hawaiian history that helped inform my experience on Maui. It simply didn’t quite live up to my expectations. I’m looking for a complete Hawaiian history with a well-rounded discussion of the the impact of that history on contemporary Hawaiian issues and identity, wrapped in an engaging, fast-paced, under 300-page package. In other words, an entire college course on Hawaiian history and culture delivered to me in the space and with the entertainment of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.
Paradise of the Pacific starts with the rising of the islands from the sea, quickly moving through various human migrations until the first Europeans arrive on the Island. Where I was hoping to move through to the end of the colonial period, Moore never really gets there. I’ve peaked ahead and skimmed the last chapter, and while Queen Lili’uokalani (the last Hawaiian queen of the islands) makes a brief appearance, the book ends still deeply entrenched in the very last years of the 19th century. The majority of the book is locked on the lifetime of King Kamehameha I – who first united the Hawaiian islands under one reign – and his wife Ka’ahumanu. Perhaps the editors of the book would be better served to christen it, Paradise of the Pacific: The Early Years of Hawaii.
Moore’s style is considerably academic with surprising and almost jarring moments of sarcastic humor, used sparingly to underline the absurdity of a Hawaiian or colonial observation. There are also incredibly large passages of primary accounts, typically from the diaries of early missionaries on the islands. These are enlightening and important but they also break the book’s pace and the language here is incredibly cumbersome. So many large and direct passages from these sources felt excessive, to the point where I frequently began skimming or skipping them altogether to get back to the narrative.
While I hope to finish this book eventually, for now, I want to read some fiction. In the meantime, I’m happy with the thorough research that went into this book, and would recommend it to anyone with a high tolerance for academic reading and a healthy interest in Hawaii. Personally, I feel much more equipped to explain why the name Kahehameha graces every other building and road in Hawaii.