Molokai story is a first-rate novel
"Molokai Nui Ahina" is the best work of fiction to come out of Hawaii in many a year. It's funny, touching, persuasive and unforgettable.
"Molokai Nui Ahina: Summers on the Lonely Isle"
by Kirby Wright
(Lemon Shark Press)
333 pages, $19.95
Order via lemonsharkpress.com
Cast as a first-person childhood memoir, Kirby Wright's new novel successfully continues the story of Jeff and Ben Gill, introduced in his coming-of-age novel, "Punahou Blues" (2005). "Molokai Nui Ahina," narrated by young Jeff (aka "Peanut"), describes the long summers the two brothers spend in family exile, year after year, on Molokai with their grandmother, the formidable Grandma Daniels.
Molokai, "The Friendly Isle," transmogrifies into "The Lonely Isle" of the story's title and then later, in the grandmother's words, into "The Godforsaken Isle." The old lady lives in a remote shack, its inaccessibility one of the reasons Ben and Jeff are sent their each summer.
Yet this almost depopulated landscape gradually fills with the richest cast of characters any reader could want. They include the caustic grandma herself, her ex-husband Chipper (who lives nearby slowly pickling himself with alcohol), the violent Duva family, teenage girls who never quite like the boys well enough to fulfill their adolescent hopes, and a variety of horses, deer, waterfalls and mountains drawn from firsthand knowledge of rural Molokai.
Wright's touch is sure and confident, clearly guided by his love of Hawaii and deep knowledge of its culture. Although now living in California, he was born and raised in Honolulu, and like Peanut attended Punahou School. Clearly his spirit has never left Hawaii.
Grandma Daniels dominates the story. She is funny, opinionated, eccentric, sexy, vain, violent and even cruel. The two boys wriggle like worms on the hook of her sharp tongue, desperate to evade her discipline and have some fun as the endless summers drag along. Their clandestine adventures become more serious as vacation succeeds vacation, until gun-toting violence is the air. No one is actually killed, but there are successive moments of anxiety and suspense. In one terrible scene a hunted deer is driven into the sea and mercilessly slaughtered.
Like all good novelists, Wright discovers moral metaphors within his story that are often fresh and unexpected. Hunting, the growth of vegetation, even the island's isolation become occasions for reflection. Keeping pace, Peanut evolves from episode to episode, marking his growing awareness of life's complexities with a series of insights into the baffling grown-up universe.
"For the first time I realized adults could back themselves into corners so remote that love or its memory could no longer reach them," he reflects. But by the end he has come to this truth: "That's when I realized love is a tough, ever hopeful thing, not easily destroyed."
The two brothers leave the story forever marked, for worse or better, by what by the end has become again the Friendly Isle.
is scholar-in-residence at Brigham Young University, Hawaii, and adjunct professor of English at TransPacific Hawaii College. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org