The Essence of Hawaii: Daughters of Fire by Tom Peek

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“Surely, Hawaii isn’t really in the US?” I quip to my husband as our plane descends into the dark of Kauai. Even more so in the daylight, the island seems too remote from cold snowy Minnesota to be in the same family: no icy roads, no bedclothes like Nanook of the North, no winds that piece down coats. No snow crunches under my boots. In fact I’m not wearing boots, I suddenly realize. I’m walking around in sandals. 

This should be familiar. I grew up in South Carolina where we learned how to sweat. Even Minnesotans know how to sweat. In fact the hottest I’ve ever been was 98 degrees in a Minnesota July. I left two inches of water in the bath tub and stepped in every few hours to splash cool. But in Hawaii, the temp rarely rises above 85, and the nights, well most need a blanket or two. Hawaii’s stately, long-necked palms put Carolina’s palmettos to shame: they never clatter, never look cold, only remote, closer to the sun. Yes it rains and squawls a bit (even two hurricanes since the mid-1980s) but mostly the place is more pacific than not, like its ocean, like the native people. Except for the volcanoes.

We’ve made maybe six visits to the Hawaiian Islands, trying out big hotels in Honolulu, and the Big Island’s volcanoland of lava and huge mountains. We’ve returned again and again to Kauai because we like the small towns of Koloa and Hanalei, the remnants of ancient refuges, the many many gardens. In fact, I’ve come to believe that what Tom Peek portrays in his new novel about the Big Island is not just a state of mind, it is a culture bred out Hawaii’s unique mix of peoples, tempered and shaped by a landscape isolated from most of the rest of the world.

Tom’s Daughters of Fire is about several major elements of Hawaiian experience: the attempt to plant mega-pleasurelands in a delicate unstable environment and the people who fight against this, led by native Hawaiians, abetted by a crusty old WWII vet and a younger Aussie astronomer. Building a pleasureland rivaling Kubla Khan’s ultimately arouses the fiery goddess Pele. We know by the middle of the book that the danger is extreme, but Peek does a wonderful job of nudging the eruption just this much further along the plot, drawing in the native underground (not exactly freedom fighters, but definitely undercover), along with a finely drawn native/Asian archaeologist who’s been perhaps a bit too lax in giving developers permission.

She is a magnificent character, statuesque with a glorious mass of wild hair and charisma to match her intelligence. When she and the Aussie astronomer try to make sense of each other, we get a strong introduction to how fierce loyalty to native culture can perplex even a sympathetic outsider. Given the gentle “aloha” element of Hawaiian life, this determined refusal to submit comes as a shock, but also as a relief–there are many Hawaiians fighting against what could destroy the Islands’ unique natural beauty and way of life. Not only have the Islands already lost many native birds and plants due to invasive species (read mosquitoes) but the unique quality of Island life is also constantly threatened by outsiders (and some insiders) who have no sense of limits.

Tom Peek’s book is huge–nearly 500 pages. It contains a large cast of characters. It touches the mystical and the sleazy. Most of the time the extremes are tempered with humor,insight, sympathy. I like particularly the old codgers–one Hawaiian and the other the aged WWII vet. Their sage and ironic friendship nicely contrasts with the larger-than-life movers and shakers, the politicians and developers, the pussy women and aged seers. It’s nice to have two characters who don’t “stand” for something other than themselves. I will remember them, as well as the native archaeologist and Aussie astronomer’s astonishing underground trek to outrun the volcanic eruption itself. We very much want them to make it. It’s not at all clear that they will.

Footnotes: Tom Peek was born in Minnesota and grew up “on an island in the Mississippi opposite Fort Snelling.” I heard him say this when he gave a reading in Minneapolis this autumn. Since then, I’ve been puzzled by this. Has anyone lived on an island in the Mississippi opposite Ft. Snelling since the Dakota warriors were hung in 1862?

Tom has also worked for a long time as a volcano ranger on the Big Island. His expertise and face-to-face experience with volcanic outbursts fill the pages of Daughters of Fire. After reading the book, I have no trouble believing this one.

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