Book Review: “Hawaii” by James Michener (1959)

Having already consumed three James Michener novels at some point over the past several years, I realized that it was time to venture into yet another classic epic from this most gifted writer. Hawaii became my book of choice, because it has been discussed (most often negatively) in several of the missions-related books I have been reading. After considering how to summarize such a massive volume as Hawaii in such a short review, I settled on the following three methods.

First and most simply, the two words that summarize this novel for me: “hope” and “anger.”

Second (and a bit more off-the-wall), the colors that summarize the novel. Although this method struck me as I was drifting off to sleep one night, I think it offers a unique take (if not any relevance whatsoever): whereas Alaska would be a deep-navy-blue-black chiseled with white, Centennial would be a strawberry blonde bordered by deep forest green, and Mexico would be pure gold lined with the tiniest threads of red, Hawaii would (more naturally) be aqua splashed with bright vegetable green.

With that out of the way, I come to the third and most important method, the worldview that summarizes the novel—and for this, I need to offer a bit more explanation. Though thoroughly entertained throughout most of Hawaii, I honestly felt a bit disappointed when I finally understood the worldview that this particular installment had been pressing into me from the very beginning. Stated plainly in my own words, that worldview is this: “All cultures are inherently wonderful, so forcing change (even good change) upon any culture is a great way to waste your life and to kill that culture; leaching onto the natural ebb and flow of any civilization (even as it dips into godless immorality) is the best way to find purpose, fulfillment, and maybe even wealth, which are all what really matter most.”

Missions books do abound with railings against James Michener’s Hawaii as some atheist’s attack against the good work of missionaries throughout history. While I can understand many other authors’ angst, I do feel after having read the book for myself that the hatred is at least partially misplaced. People have a right to be angry at the man, but I believre for his godless worldview, not simply for his historical depiction of a single missionary colony in Hawaii. To state my case, I’d like to quickly dissect three of Michener’s key Hawaii characters: Abner Hale, Dr. Whipple, and Captain Hoxworth. Doing so might help readers to understand why the once benign, hugely influential James Michener fell into such unpopularity with missions-minded evangelicals.

Abner Hale begins his mission as a pious, oddball go-getter intent on converting the “heathen savages” of Hawaii’s islands to his Congregationalist beliefs. In the end, however, he’s clearly depicted as a stubborn man who loves the work more than he loves the people, and he loves the Law more than he loves his Lord. After all, the “fundamental error in his thinking” was to “perpetually think of the Hawaiian as both heathen and blind” as if he “were surrounded by a huge crowd of naked savages” (304). Missions history has no shortage of such sad emissaries for Jesus! That Michener elected to follow this heartless man through the throes of Hawaii’s takeover instead of some genuinely faithful missionary evidences not only his natural distrust of religious proselytes (though he himself is a proselyte of humanism), but also his flair for the dramatic. As a Christian, I’d prefer that he’d chosen the latter; but as a writer, I understand why he didn’t.

Since Michener dramatically begrudges the man Abner Hale and not necessarily the faith that he represents, the argument against him must go deeper than this. After all, at least some good apparently came from Abner’s work.

  • In the words of one “heathen savage” woman:
    Of all the white men who have come to Lahaina…he is the only one who has brought more than he took away. After all, what is it he is trying to get me to do? … He wants me to protect the girls from the sailors, and to stop baby girls from being buried alive. Everything Makua Hale tells me is a good thing. (360)
  • Later, however, that woman’s own son tells Abner directly:
    In former days we followed our own gods, and our valleys were filled with people. We have tried following yours, and our islands are sunk in despair. Death, awful sickness, cannon and fear. That is what you have brought us, Makua Hale, although we know you did not intend it to be so. (458)
  • Finally even the members of his own mission turn on him, though this time with a better, more spiritual perspective:
    What a profound tragedy. Brother Hale has never even dimly perceived the true spirit of the Lord. If the score were tallied, I suspect he has done far more harm than good.(507)

So to where exactly is James Michener’s historical hatred drawn, if not to Abner’s beliefs? I believe his own voice can be heard in the “level-headed” Dr. Whipple, a man who naturally focuses more on the native’s physical health than the spiritual. Dr. Whipple is a fellow-missionary who’d joined Abner on the boat over—a great section of the book, by the way, filled the realities of life at sea: seasickness and constipation included!—but who later left the mission for reasons of conscience, stating: “I am terribly afraid that what we are doing is not right. I am certain that we are sponsoring the spread of consumption and that these wonderful people are doomed.” (404). As the Spanish conquistadors brought their foreign germs to South America and destroyed entire civilizations with the common cold, so the germs of foreign visitors also killed off a great deal of native Hawaiian people—these facts cannot be denied. Yet Michener’s choice to bloody the hands of the stinky, wool-clad missionaries instead of the sex-crazed mariners is perhaps the most illogical accusation in all of literature!

Dr. Whipple, Michener’s Voice of Reason, later continues his rant against the missionaries, now finally breaking into his spiritual attack. To Abner: “Your mission is founded upon an impossible contradiction. You love the Hawaiians as potential Christians, but you despise them as people. I am proud to say that I have come to exactly the opposite conclusion” (410). Considering that opposite conclusion, Dr. Whipple thus loves the Hawaiians as people but despises them as potential Christians. Here we see Michener’s worldview expounded: “Hawaii’s pagan culture of rampant immorality with traveling white sailors was the chosen course of their thriving civilization; the evil Christian missionaries destroyed that culture when the came, uninvited with their physical diseases and spiritual slavery.”

If Abner Hale is Michener’s Fall Guy and Dr. Whipple is his Voice of Reason, then Captain Hoxworth, one of these sex-crazed white sailors, is most certainly his worldview’s Case-in-Point. The reader has plenty of opportunity to get to know this deplorable man, for he comes in and out of the story for hundreds of pages. From a Christian viewpoint, Hoxworth is the archetype character that discerning readers should avoid: filthy, perverted, fornicating, cursing, godless, evil, murderous, not to mention extraordinarily wealthy, highly successful, and super happy. When an old man relaxing with his barns full, Hoxworth once advises his 13-year-old grandson: “Whip, you’ve tasted Chinese girls and Spaniards. There are a thousand more to sample. Try ’em all. That’s the one thing you’ll do in life that you’ll never regret” (658). Quite a hero, right? For Michener, apparently so, for while the flawed servant of God, Abner Hale, dies smelly and alone in utter disgrace with not a Christian soul to carry on the Hawaiian ministry, Captain Hoxworth “died…full of years and public acclaim. At his deathbed were Hales and Whipples and Janderses and Hoxworths– the leaders of Hawaii–but the surviving mortal on whom his thoughts rested was his grandson Whip, happily bedded down in a Manila brothel with an agile little Cochinese lately imported from Saigon” (660).

In summary, I restate my own version of James Michener’s worldview, as fleshed out in Hawaii: “All cultures are inherently wonderful, so forcing change (even good change) upon any culture is a great way to waste your life and to kill that culture; leaching onto the natural ebb and flow of any civilization (even as it dips into godless immorality) is the best way to find purpose, fulfillment, and maybe even wealth, which are all what really matter most.”

I will continue to read novels by James Michener, because truly there is no other fiction writer that captivates me and captures real life so completely and imaginatively. His works are true biographies of people who never existed in locales and situations that certainly have throughout history. He’s an expert, but he’s also a die-hard humanist and must be read with discernment and care. Would I recommend Hawaii? Probably not, since he’s got much better books out there to choose from. You should let this one slide.

©2015 E.T.

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One Response to Book Review: “Hawaii” by James Michener (1959)

  1. Pingback: Book Review: “Space” by James Michener (1982) | Elliot's Blog

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