Danielle Steele has her romance novels and Stephen King has his horror stories. It should only be fitting, then, that best-selling author James Michener should have his trademark too. His books are epic, multig
enerational tales celebrating virtues of patriotism and identity. But beginning a book with, "Millions upon millions of years ago" does not sound formulaic of popular fiction, let alone a best seller. Yet that is exactly how James Michener starts his no
vel, "Hawaii". It was not a sheer phenomenon that propelled this 900-page novel into the mainstream public. Besides the quality of his book, a combination of Michener's reputation, the timing of his book, and the promotional muscle that was put into th
is work helped solidify its success.
"Hawaii" was published in 1959 and was the first of Michener's blockbuster novels. Over 30 years later, it is currently still in print, the last edition in publication being in 1995. There was a reorder of 10,000 copies a month after publication. It s
old 200,000 copies in the first two months alone. Eventually, it was translated into 32 foreign languages worldwide.
What made the road to success a little easier for the novel was that Michener had already established his name before the publication of "Hawaii." Michener, at this point, had already published "Tales of the South Pacific" as well as "The Floating World"
and "The Bridge at Andau." Michener's reputation had already been established as one who traveled extensively and specialized in writing about the cultures he came across. Furthermore, the first book he published in 1948, "Tales of the South Pacific
," won Michener a Pulitzer prize. It was adapted into the musical "South Pacific" by Rodgers and Hammerstein which ran for almost 2,000 performances. With a Pulitzer prize under his belt, anything following this novel would make his publisher, Random Hou
se, pay closer attention.
"Hawaii" was a best seller in a large part due to satisfying a trend that the pubic wanted. The publication of Michener's novel in 1959 came out at the same time as Hawaii's
new statehood. This was the first real novel about Hawaii. People were already curious about the tiny islands laying in the Pacific ocean that would join the United States. Michener, at that time, was a resident of Hawaii, giving his version of the isl
ands more credibility. The success of "Hawaii" was not only a one way street. Audiences did not simply receive the novel with open arms. It is rare that a 900- page book dealing with serious issues would capture the attention of the masses. Rather, th
e publisher played a vital role in pushing the novel into the mainstream public. Even being a Pulitzer prize winner and a cash cow for Random House, it took "Hawaii" nine weeks to reach the bestseller list. Full page ads could be found in any major book
reviews and newspapers such as The New York Times Book Review, The New Yorker, and The Saturday Review. These ads were in addition to the ads released by Random House that introduced new books. Michener had already been writing for Reader's Digest long
before. So in addition to his own publisher, he also had Reader's Digest promoting the book. Before the book was even published, a condensed version appeared in Reader's Digest. It came as no surprise, then, that it was the book of the month for the
Reader's Digest Condensed Book Club.
The marketing of "Hawaii" extended to a production of a motion picture. Hopes were high since "South Pacific" had been so successfully transformed into another media. The movie rights were bought by the Mirisch Corporation even before the book was publi
shed for a record amount of $600,000. Articles were also published over the making of the film in "Look," with full pages of colored pictures. Another film, "The Hawaiians" was released by United Artists in 1970.
Most best- selling novels are accused of lacking depth and "Hawaii" is charged with the same criticism. But while it does not dig deep beneath the surface, its surface area covers a great span. It starts with the forming of the islads and leaps across 5
2 generations to end with the coming of statehood. Time magazine says, "[the characters] move fast-- through an incredible gauntlet of rapes, murders, tidal waves, human sacrifices, Chinese food, whale thrashings, leprosy, volcanic eruptions, and pineapp
Even taking into account the timing of publication and the advertising, readers could not have endured over 900 pages without the book having some intriguing quality about it. The novel does not focus in on one main character, but rather gives a panoram
ic view of the coming of four groups to the islands. The Polynesians from Bora Bora, the American missionaries, the Chinese, and the Japanese form the backbone to this epic tale. It is this epic quality that draws in readers. Maybe the names of the num
erous characters are easy to forget, but the reader is not likely to forget each group's heroic struggles to thrive in a newly developing society. Although each group is uniquely distinguished by their cultural background and way of thinking, the reader
roots for each group.
The native Hawaiians are depicted as embracing and loving people who got in exchange for their hospitality from the missionaries measles and pneumonia. The missionaries are divided between pompous, fervent characters like Abner Hale and caring people who
started schools and churches like his wife. Some of the missionaries left the service and joined with shipping captains, forming mercantile enterprises that would control Hawaii. Even with capitalism, some of the white characters are shown to will not
stand for injustice.
Enter Chinese immigrants who were brought as cheap labor to work the pineapple fields. These immigrants were oppressed in their everyday living conditions. The characters in this group are determined people who value education and foresee that owning la
nd will be their way of controlling their destinies. But the Chinese also have to contend with racial discrimination. The power of the human spirit comes through when one Chinese immigrant, Nyuk Tsin leaves with her husband who has leprosy to the island
of Molokai. There she lives with the other outcasts in chaotic conditions. She eventually becomes the heart of the island, caring for those who have been tossed aside by the government. When her husband dies, she returns to her family. When she gets
on the ship to return home, the reader is introduced briefly to Father Damien, a real historical figure who unselfishly worked with lepers on Molokai. The Chinese still contend with racial discrimination when the houses in China town are completely burne
d down because the bubonic plague is brought from a ship from the Orient. Nevertheless, the Chinese rally back to get land at any cost. Nyuk Tsin says, "Today will be memory too terrible to accept. They will decide to surrender their land in Chinatown.
And if they do, we will buy it." Michener goes on to write, "From despair hope rises; from defeat victory. . . The city is burned, but it must be rebuilt." (597)
The Japanese are also brought in as workers, but they differ from the Chinese in that they expect to return to Japan one day. They are hardworking and proud people. They give up land in exchange for cash, only to be given back to the Japanese consulate.
This type of pride is most evident in the midst of World War II when the Japanese were put into internment camps. The Japanese youth, in order to prove their loyalty, join the 222nd Combat team. This unit alludes to the factual 442nd of Hawaii that be
came famous for their relentless fighting. Despite their efforts to prove their patriotism, the Japanese boys are still mistreated by other American soldiers. Still, they fight for America. One of the Japanese boys says, "We fight double. Against the
Germans and for every Japanese in America." And they do earn their recognition as Americans when a Texas battalion becomes trapped and the Japanese group goes in to rescue them. The lives of 800 Japanese are lost in order to save 341 Texans. Because
of their military achievements, the Japanese earn their way into Hawaii's politics.
Each group fears a loss of identity, but the children of these ethnic groups are the ones that melt and mesh together to form the identity of Hawaii. The Chinese intermarry with the Hawaiians, the Japanese work with the Chinese, and the whites start let
ting the Chinese and Japanese onto their board of directors. The strength of Michener's storytelling is that he is able to show the triumphs of each ethnic group as well as the prejudices they hold. Everyone is resistant to change and there is always r
emorse over what is lost and handling this is Michener's weakness in the last section of the book entitled, "The Golden Men". In the last section of the book, the narrator appears and the reader finds out that the one telling the story is actually one o
f the golden men. Michener inserts his own voice as the narrator's. He pushes for statehood and almost ends in a "happily ever after." The Hawaiians who lose their monarchy as well as most of their land are not reconciled in any way. But maybe there
can be no reconciliation for a change. Michener definitely celebrates the future more than regretting the past.
It is clear that capturing the feeling of such a vast amount of time is a feat that deserves praise. Reviewers agreed. The book was reviewed in all major newspapers and book reviews. Almost no reviewer could argue that this book was thoroughly research
ed, although there was a slight division over whether all the facts presented were faithful to history. Mary Ross, in the New York Tribune, praised Michener for "his laborious exploration of many fields... while stretching one's horizon over time and sp
ace, carrying its own conviction of validity," while others said it was another example of "Mr. Michener's specialty: dramatized journalism." The biggest criticism, as mentioned earlier were the depth of the characters. The book included genealogical c
harts to help the reader keep track of the many, many characters. Some characters, like the Hawaiian, Kelly Kawanakoa, were accused of being caricatures of the Hawaiian people. The highest praise Michener allows anyone in the book is "extraordinary."
Despite this criticism, each reviewer could not help but credit Michener with an unprecedented achievement. Horace Sutton of Saturday Review puts it best when he wrote, "High-domed, long-haired literature may argue that Michener's characters are often a
s paper-thin... but 'Hawaii' is still a masterful job of research, an absorbing performance of storytelling, and a monumental account of the islands. . ." The unanimous glowing praise reviewers gave the book only added momentum to its popularity.
Finally, with every best selling novel, there is an element of the unknown. That is, there is the luck factor. This comes simply from what the reader thinks of the book. Personally when I read this, having grown up in Hawaii, I found this book mesmeriz
ing. I could recognize the accuracy in historical backdrop, at the same time I was captivated by the individual dramas. It was a book that celebrated different cultures and showed their victories through unimaginable trials. For example, before readin
g this book, I already knew of the 442nd battalion in World War II and the internment camps. I learned of the casualties in history class. But to walk through that same experience with a name, a name that is attached to a family, who is attached to a cu
lture, brought the whole incident into reality. Ironically, the names were fictitious, but the determination that the battalion showed was so vivid that the injustice of it all was really felt. I was on the brink of tears when a reporter in the story su
ms it briefly saying:
"If tears could be transmitted by cable, and printed by linotype, this story would be splashed with tears, for I have at last seen what they call courage beyond the call of duty. I saw a bunch of bandy-legged Japanese kids form Hawaii cross the Rapido Ri
ver, and hold the opposite bank for more than forty minutes. Then they retreated in utter defeat, driven back by the full might of the German army. Never in victory have I seen any troops in the world achieve a greater glory, and if hereafter any Americ
an ever questions the loyalty of our Japanese, I am not going to argue with him. I' m going to kick his teeth in."
Michener scripts in the reaction of the reader through the use of other characters. These moments in the book are too numerous to mention. So in the most general way possible, I would have to say this was one of the best books I've read and for lack of
a better phrase--It was brilliant.
The business of selling books is exactly that, a business. There are political factors underlining the book itself. It was fortunate for James Michener that a combination of forces were working together. One was his established reputation that enabled
the book to get more exposure. Another one is the timing of the book, which satisfied people's curiosity about the new state. The bells and whistles of promotion, like the film deals and the ads, helped convince people to pick up the 900-page novel. T
he reviews were added encouragement. But once the book was in the hands of readers, it was up to the quality of the book to hold people's interests. This was the cinching factor. "Hawaii" was packaged in an unique genre, with an epic story line, and a
bigger than life quality. One of the characters says, "I want to construct an image of all Hawaii and the peoples who came to build it. I want to deal with the first volcano and the last sugar strike." This is what Michener has accomplished by his boo
k and so he stays true to the dedication page, which reads, "To all the peoples who came to Hawaii."