Out in the world, the siblings tussle with the Hawaii within them and the America around them. Their dreams fail. They wrestle with sexuality, with belonging, with whether to go forward, deeper into America, or backward, home.
Like his characters, the author was born and raised in Hawaii, and left it for the mainland. He left behind a land that, in Dean’s words, was first discovered by men from “Fiji or Tonga or wherever,” who “broke their backs making themselves canoes to cut through 40-foot swells,” and sailed until “they seen the white light of the moon over the new land of Hawai’i and they was like: This. This is ours. All us, all now.”
The islands of Washburn’s novel, modern though they may be, are not so far removed from their origins, from what they were on the night of that “white light.” With prose that can be breathy and sweaty in one paragraph before gliding softly and tenderly into the next, this passionate writer cries out for us to see Hawaii in its totality: as a place of proud ancestors and gods and spirits, but also of crumbling families and hopelessness and poverty. Of mystery and beauty at every corner.
Gods, or their absence, are constantly on the minds of these characters. Malia laments the tyranny of capital; in the olden days, her ancestors “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, a sense of one’s place in the system.” But that peace was lost when “ships from far ports carried a new god in their bellies. … And money was the name of that god.”
In this novel, the only way out is back. After Noa’s overconfidence in his gifts leads to a disaster at his job, he returns to Hawaii and goes on a quest to understand both himself and the ancestral land that is a part of him. His expedition will come at a hefty price for him and his loved ones — incarceration, mental illness, unemployment — but isn’t that the point of a journey to our roots? So we may walk through fire, and so be purified?
Perhaps a day will come when humans will no longer need to make exorbitant sacrifices in order to see the light of their true selves. Until then, Washburn has given us a meditation on the tragedies of living too long in the darkness.