Sharks in the Time of Saviors by Kawai Strong Washburn
“The kingdom of Hawai’i had long been broken – the breathing rain forests and singing green reefs crushed under the haole fists of beach resorts and skyscrapers…”
A tremendously good book with an unfortunately awful title. Synopses will tell you it is about a boy who is magically rescued by sharks and goes on to have supernatural powers, and you might wonder why you should read a silly fantasy tale like that (with an awful title to boot). But this is really the story of a Hawaiian family with deep, magically realistic ties to the earth; as well as the story of a modern family going to shambles.
I went to the Big Island of Hawaii once and it had a life-altering effect on my spiritual attitude, i.e. it gave me one. I think it was at the point that a guide told us that the lava flows were “Pele’s hair.” We all hear about nature-worshipping religions and the Gaia theory, but only in Hawaii did I feel it literally. No, that particular lava flow really IS Pele’s hair. So they don’t want you to take a pickax to it, to my husband’s disappointment. (It’s gotta be a lot easier to adhere to a religion like that in a place with no winter. In Vermont, one feels bereft; god is literally dormant for so long.)
This book brought it all to life. “Fire goddess Pele with her unyielding strength, birthing the land again and again in lava, exhaling her sulfur breath across the sky…”
The family suffers from poverty, must leave the Big Island for jobs in the cities in Oahu. The parents work hard to send their children to colleges on the mainland. The one who is blessed with healing powers, Noa, becomes a paramedic. The eldest, Dean, becomes for a short time a basketball star; and the youngest, Kaui, goes to school for engineering. But always, the poverty:
“My grandmother’s grandmother’s grandmother had no use for paper printed with the silhouette of some faraway haole man. It gave nothing. What was needed was food from the earth, housing from the earth, medicine from the earth… But ships from far ports carried a new god in their bellies… And money was the name of that god, and it was the sort of god that preyed on you, made demands and laid its hands on you with such force as to make the Old Testament piss its pants.”
In the end, it is not giving too much away to note that it seems significant that Kaui’s job pays her not in money but in food from the earth. But I did not like how Dean ended up; and I don’t know the significance of the fact that what he provided for the family was money.
Addendum: I own this in physical form and will loan.