Too often, recreational travel, even to the most interesting and exotic places, has the feeling of skimming across surfaces. As we move from notable site to notable site, we are sometimes dazzled. More often, though, we are dazzle-proofed by preformed expectations (think Walker Percy’s “The Loss of the Creature”).
Our outsiderdom also keeps us at a distance. As we observe the locals and even other tourists, we may get the sense that intriguing stories are being played out all around us, but with rare exceptions, we are never immersed in them.
The great gift of Lee A. Jacobus’s new story collection, Hawaiian Tales: The Girl with Heavenly Eyes, is how deeply and richly it immerses us in the predicaments of its characters, from Hawaiian natives to tourists, and in the psychological and physical landscapes of their lives. Reading it, I truly felt transported.
The depth of the title story, “Pi’ilani, the Girl with Heavenly Eyes,” comes in part from cross-generational connections: in this case between the young central character, Pi’ilani, and her late grandmother, Auntie Peg, who has bequeathed to Pi’ilani her leaky-roofed house in southern Kauai (much to the chagrin of Pi’ilani’s older sister, who feels more deserving of the home). Pi’ilani shares the house with a ne’er-do-well boyfriend (ipa) who is physically and emotionally abusive, and who essentially lives off of her.
While going through a box of Auntie Peg’s possessions, Pi’ilani discovers some sepia photographs “that surprised her”:
Pi’ilani never gets a clear answer to her question, though it becomes evident from Aunt Peg’s notes in an old calendar that things didn’t end well. Although it is too late for Pi’ilani to ask Auntie Peg for specifics or advice, she seems to take strength from the old woman’s persistence and from other family bonds that hold up despite challenges.
One of the things I admire most about Hawaiian Tales is the way it examines tests of faith. In “Is God Calling You?” Julian Kusaka, a former advertising executive and a descendant of Portuguese missionaries, opens the so called Celestial Connection, a store-front enterprise that aims to foster religious experiences. A central feature of the Celestial Connection is a wall of five telephones, which are hooked up to answering machines with religious messages.
Eventually, word gets around—much to Julian’s dismay—that he has a “healing spirit.” When Julian reluctantly answers the call to pray at the bedside of a possibly dead elderly woman, she recovers, drawing far more public and media attention than he’s comfortable with. The incident also increases demand for what people see as Julian’s healing powers, powers that he himself never believes in. Julian’s experiences pose all kinds of intriguing questions, among them: What happens when personal faith is transformed into something public or, worse, into something that might be misconstrued or commodified?
“Volcanic Jesus,” perhaps my favorite story in the collection, poses similar questions. In this story, set at a church on the slopes of the Kilauea volcano, it’s Father Martin Lahiri who is tested. At the beginning of the story, he discovers a holy image in a vestry window of the church: “It was faint but distinct: an image of Christ. It was much like the image on the Shroud of Turin—a long, sad face whose eyes were closed and peaceful.”
Fearing what will happen if news of the image circulates, Martin asks the few congregants who have seen it to keep the information to themselves. Eventually, he replaces the window, but is found out and chastised, especially by those who believe that seeing the image has transformed their lives for the better. Martin’s anxieties persist:
Once the window with the image of Christ is restored, it becomes the public draw Martin feared, bringing on large crowds, T-shirt vendors, and a copyright battle over reproductions of the image. Like Julian in “Is God Calling You?” Martin is deeply troubled by how the desires and demands of congregants, and of curiosity seekers from all over, seem to overpower personal religious experience.
Reading all of the Hawaiian Tales, I was struck not only by Jacobus’s insightful explorations of his characters but also by the way he brings the various Hawaiian settings to life. To give you some sense of this, I’ll end with the final passages of “Adulterers in Paradise,” set in Lahaina. (Enriching our perceptions of this scene is the fact that the adulterers, Ignacio and Holly, are coming to the end of one of their regular assignations.)
“There it goes,” Ignacio said.
“Yes, there it goes.”
Would My Pick be Your Pick?If you're interested in ________, the answer may be "Yes":
▪ The Descendants by Kaui Hart Hemmings
▪ Tales of Hawaii by Jack London
▪ The Other Side of the Island by Yvonne Nelson Perry
▪ Unfamiliar Fishes by Sarah Vowell