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Hawaii by James A. Michener
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I've never read Michener's work before, but this book left me awed with his knowledge of history and storytelling ability. The book begins with a brief section on the formation of the islands, then plunges into a novella (100 pages) about the arrival of the original Polynesian settlers. After that, it jumps forward again to the 1820s and the arrival of the New England missionaries. After this point, the narrative is pretty much continuous, with new chapters covering both the background and the arrival of new groups (Chinese, Japanese) and continuing the story of those who were already there. At this point it becomes very much a family saga, spanning about 130 years (the book was published in 1959, so the narrative deals only with pre-statehood Hawaii).

Obviously there's a great deal of history here, somewhat fictionalized as it may be, and I've never learned about so many places and cultures in the same book. The depth of Michener's research and the details of his portrayal of the lifestyles and thought processes of people from so many different cultures, in particular, never failed to impress me. But the story is brought down-to-earth through the always-engaging struggles of the protagonists, and the plotting and characterization were certainly enough to keep me reading. The writing style is intelligent; I know some people find Michener too dense for their tastes, but for me this book was just right: much more intelligent than your typical pop lit, but still absolutely readable.

My one reservation about this book is that, while I think Michener was quite progressive for the 50's, there are some wince-worthy moments in his dealing with race relations and his characterization of women and their roles. It doesn't seem to have bothered many people, but there is the occasional bit that hasn't aged especially well. Other reviewers have found the dropping of old protagonists jarring as the story moves on from one generation to the next, but I think that's standard for family sagas, especially when they have the breadth of this one.

I highly recommend this book even to those who have no special interest in Hawaii.
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