"The task of understanding the past is never-ending," Susanna Moore observes late in "Paradise of the Pacific: Approaching Hawaii," her fascinating account of the "short 120 years from the arrival of Captain Cook in 1777 to the annexation of the Islands in 1898 by the United States." Such a point of view — imbued as it is with a sense of story as malleable, dependent on teller as much as character — belongs as much to the novelist as to the historian.
That, of course, is as it should be, for Moore is best known for her fiction. Author of seven novels, including "In the Cut" and "The Whiteness of Bones," she has staked out a territory in which women must find a place for themselves in a world where history conspires against them and identity is a shifting sea of codes.
Small wonder, then, that she would bring an equivalent perspective to Hawaii, where she grew up and about which she has written two earlier nonfiction books, "I Myself Have Seen It" and "Light Years." For Moore, Hawaii is where it all begins (it permeates her fiction too), a template of fantasy and hard truths, opportunities lost and found. As she writes, "It will be the obvious view of most readers that the Hawaiians should have been left to work out their own history."
What Moore is referring to is colonialism, which has defined the history of the islands in many ways. Wisely, she keeps her focus largely on the 19th century; she is less interested in what Hawaii is than how it got that way.
Such a process was far more complicit than we might expect, as Hawaiian kings and chieftains cut deals with European and American traders, looking for advantage and protection, and even sought out contact on their own. In 1824, King Liholiho died in London, where he had gone "to visit King George IV of England to seek advice as to the best form of government for the Islands," and that's just one example; the early history of Hawaii is rife with unanticipated entanglements and complexities.
Just consider Cook, who despite "having exhausted the Hawaiians' food reserves, as well as their good will," was, in Moore's telling, killed less in retribution than as a kind of stunning accident. For this reason, she suggests, his successor Charles Clerke "did not seek vengeance. He understood that there had been no plot or even desire to kill Cook, and thought that the Hawaiians, surprised and frightened, regretted Cook's death."
In Moore's view, that's a significant moment. Throughout "Paradise of the Pacific," she highlights just these sorts of interactions, using her novelist's eye to zero in on the ways boundaries get blurred and distinctions collapse, never inserting herself directly (there is no first-person writing in the book) but subtly shading the narrative to frame its pieces through a wider filter, a wider lens.
At the heart of this is a sly and vivid feminism that emerges particularly in her portraits of the powerful Queen Ka'ahumanu and the missionary Lucy Thurston, whom Moore clearly regards as essential to the place.
Ka'ahumanu, who lived from 1768 to 1832, was perhaps the single greatest modernizing influence on the islands; her husband, King Kamehameha I, unified Hawaii under one leader, and after his death in 1819, she successfully pressured the next king, Liholiho, to dismantle the traditional system of kapu, social taboos by which tribal culture had been governed for centuries. The consequence, Moore writes, was the banishment of the old gods, which left the islanders "particularly vulnerable to the god Jehovah, who was bearing down on them. … Without their gods, the Hawaiians were suddenly alone and adrift."
And yet, if that suggests a story we think we know — "to blame the influence of foreigners, particularly the missionaries" — Moore insists we look deeper, set our preconceptions aside.
Thurston is a case in point. Massachusetts-born and 26 when she saw Hawaii for the first time, her initial impression was one of terror. "The appearance of destitution, degradation, and barbarism, among the chattering, and almost naked savages … was appalling," she wrote. Half a century later, she had herself become an elder, having befriended Ka'ahumanu, survived breast cancer surgery without anesthesia and raised a family.
"Unlike other colonialists," Moore writes, "… foreigners in [Hawaii] succumbed for the most part only to Nature" — a subtle way of saying they adapted to their environment even as it adapted to them. This, Moore makes clear, often had to do with the work of women: Sarah Lyman, who "kept a diary of the occurrence of earthquakes in Hilo between 1833 and 1845," or Thornton, who made a study of native shells.
Moore has touched on this history in some of her fiction, and the story of 19th century Hawaii emerges throughout "I Myself Have Seen It." Yet rather than come off as a retread, "Paradise of the Pacific" reads as deepening. As to why that is, it reflects, I think, the book's generous perspective, chronologically and culturally.
The author has no use for easy answers, but rather means to trace a lineage that, for better and for worse, has made contemporary Hawaii what it is. "With the arrival of foreign explorers, navigators, seamen, and merchants," she tells us, "the fixed world of the Hawaiians, governed by a hereditary ali'i and priesthood with a distinctive system of kapu, suddenly became one of flux, if not chaos."
In many ways, it remains so today. The power of "Paradise of the Pacific," then — as well as its bitter beauty — resides in Moore's ability to lay out this progression as a set of turning points, inevitable from the standpoint of the present, but in their own time more a matter of human ambition and fallibility.
Paradise of the Pacific: Approaching Hawaii
Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 320 pp., $26