Headed to Hawaii soon, but know nothing about the island state at all? Never fear. Below, you can find our picks for the seven most essential books about Hawaii. We’ve included history, novels, and even a memoir from President Barack Obama to round out the selections.
Originally published in the year Hawaii became a state, Hawaii by James Michener is an epic novel that traces the entirety of Hawaii’s history. From the first people to land on the islands’ shores through Calvinist missionaries to the Chinese and Japanese immigrants who came to seek a new life, the novel follows all of them through to the time that Hawaii became a state. The big criticism of this book is that it perpetuates a number of stereotypes about island life.
Where Michener’s book stopped when Hawaii became a state, Panek’s book looks at Hawaii today. He does away with the stereotypes and offers a nuanced look at island life without romanticizing it. The story encompasses dead politicians, crystal meth, and much, much more in what many consider one of the best novels ever written about Hawaii.
Everyone knows who Mark Twain is, and most likely is familiar with his travels along the Mississippi River, but did you know the famous American humorist also traveled to Hawaii? (Sidebar: Imagine Tom Sawyer set in Hawaii for a second … how cool would that have been?) As a special correspondent for a California newspaper in the late 1800s, Twain wrote a series of 25 letters over a four-month stay.
The bestselling history book about Hawaii of all time, Shoal of Time is a massive tome that explores, well, the history of Hawaii. From its very beginnings through to statehood, Daws covers it all. Much like its fictional counterpart (Hawaii by Michener) though, this book is also written by an outsider and for some, that shows and detracts from the narrative built by Daws.
A novel that manages to weave in a century’s worth of Hawaiian history, Shark Dialogues explores the saga of a Hawaiian family over time in a way that mainlanders could not. Mixing Hawaiian legend and lore with a saga that spans generations, Shark Dialogues is a great read for those looking to dig in to the expansive history of Hawaii while also entertaining ideas of magic and familial bonds.
Published 13 years before he became president, this memoir by Barack Obama is a look at his early years in Hawaii, as well as his time in Chicago leading up to when he went to law school in the late 1980s. The memoir is modeled on Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man.
At one point in this book, Thompson beats a marlin to death with a Hawaiian war club. This takes place after he covers the Hawaii marathon, the main point of the book. If you’ve ever read anything by Thompson, you know what to expect. Drugs, crazy adventures, and Ralph Steadman (who accompanies Thompson on the trip that constituted this book).
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