Who is the great novelist of Hawaii? (If you say James Michener, deduct a thousand points and surf off a cliff.)
When Martine and I went to Hawaii in 1996, I did some research on the subject and came up with the name O. A. (short for Oswald Andrew) Bushnell. I promptly bought all five of his novels:
- The Return of Lono (1956), about the death of Captain Cook on the Big Island of Hawai’i
- Ka’a’awa: A Novel About Hawaii in the 1850s (1972)
- Moloka’i (1975) about Father Damien and the leper colony at Kalaupapa
- The Stone of Kannon (1979) and its sequel The Water of Kane (1980) about Japanese immigration to Hawaii
I am ashamed to say that, to date, I have read only the first two books. Between now and our trip to Hawaii this fall, I will also add Moloka’i to my to-be-read pile.
What I find interesting about Bushnell is that he was a professor of microbiology at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa. In fact, he also wrote a book on the subject: Gifts of Civilization: Germs and Genocide in Hawaii (1993). Yet he was also a natural at writing fiction. Come to think of it, much of his novel Ka’a’awa dealt with the devastating smallpox and influenza epidemics of the 1850s
I remember visiting the Los Angeles Times Book Fair around 2000 and coming upon a booth staffed by the University of Hawai’i Press. At the time, I had not yet read any of my Bushnell titles, but I asked about how the author was doing. “Ah, poor Ozzie!” came the answer. “He’s pretty ill, and we can only hope he pulls through.” Alas, he was to die shortly after.
But his work lives on, and it is definitely worth reading.