Skip to main content

Originally published Monday, March 11, 2013 at 4:00 AM

  • Share:
  • Comments ((0))
  • Print

7 top reads about Hawaii

Seattle Times book editor Mary Ann Gwinn lists some of her favorite books about the Hawaiian islands.

Seattle Times book editor

No comments have been posted to this article.


Lit Life

My sister offered me a free February stay in a condo on the west shore of Maui. You know how this ends — after another vain search for sun in the Seattle sky, I signed up.

I love my sister’s company, and as for Maui — I was almost completely disarmed. Long lines for gasoline, bumper-car traffic, high prices, natives losing patience with the tourist crush — all this dissolved before the spectacle of spouting humpback whales and hibiscus hedges, bathed by perpetual western sunshine, refracted into a permanent rainbow over the West Maui Mountains.

I found a wonderful little bookstore in Lahaina, the old whaling port city and epicenter of the tourist trade in west Maui. The Maui Friends of the Library bookstore stocked a robust selection of used books, including Hawaiiana. I picked up a couple and since have thought of many more. Here’s a laundry list of books that will inform, possibly shock and prepare you for your next trip to Paradise.

“Unfamiliar Fishes” by Sarah Vowell(Riverhead). NPR commentator Vowell is both arch and funny, and you will need some laughs to sweeten the sorry history of how the United States appropriated Hawaii from the natives.

First came the whalers, then the missionaries, then diseases that killed off most native Hawaiians. Then the sons and grandsons of missionaries, running the sugar and pineapple business and aggravated by the native royalty’s lax leadership, persuaded Teddy Roosevelt and Congress that Hawaii would be much better off in American hands — not difficult, given the strategic importance of Pearl Harbor.

Another, critically praised, work on this subject (minus the snark) is “Lost Kingdom: Hawaii’s Last Queen, the Sugar Kings, and America’s First Imperial Adventure” by Julia Flynn Siler(Grove Press).

“Kauai: The Separate Kingdom” by Edward Joesting(University of Hawaii Press). A comprehensive history of Kauai, another island I love, from its ancient culture to Hawaii’s incorporation as a territory of the U.S.

“Blue Latitudes: Boldly Going Where Captain Cook Has Gone Before” by Tony Horwitz(Picador). The highly entertaining Horwitz retraces Captain James Cook’s 18th-century explorations and perambulations — including a fateful stop in Hawaii.

“Hawaii” by James Michener. Critics drubbed Michener for the pedestrian style of his historical novels, but the author, who lived in Hawaii for years, was a serious researcher. This sweeping novel, one of Michener’s first books, starts at the beginning of geologic time and moves through Hawaiian history.

“From Here to Eternity” by James Jones. Maybe you remember the incandescent wave-drenched love scene from the movie version of this book. The National Book Award-winning novel is a classic war story, following several American servicemen in the days before the attack on Pearl Harbor. An e-book version of this book, which restored some of the racy parts cut by 1950s censors, was published by Open Road media in 2009.

“Hawaii’s Birds” (Hawaiian Audubon Society). Get this easy-to-tote guidebook for the local birds — these folks know what they’re talking about. Comprehensive histories of island bird life, including the many extinctions and introductions from other lands.

Many more good books about the islands have been published over the years. Share your favorites with other readers in the comments thread with this story at

Mary Ann Gwinn: 206-464-2357 or Gwinn appears every Tuesday on TVW's “Well Read,” discussing books with host Terry Tazioli (go to for archived episodes). On Twitter @gwinnma.

News where, when and how you want it

Email Icon

 Subscribe today!

Subscribe today!

99¢ for four weeks of unlimited digital access.



NDN Video

The Seattle Times photographs

Seattle space needle and mountains

Purchase The Seattle Times images