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There’s more to Hawaii than just beautiful beaches and Mai Tais, and these Hawaii books are the best way to prepare for your trip. The islands have a rich culture, multi-cultural people, and turbulent history including the overthrow of their monarchy and annexation by the USA in 1898.
I think it’s important to learn more about these seemingly paradise islands before you visit. As usual with my pre-travel reading, I focused on fictional books set in Hawaii rather than dry histories, and I learned a lot while enjoying engaging stories.
These historical and contemporary Hawaii novels and short stories are a mix of fascinating, tragic, and entertaining.
If you only read one book set in Hawaii, make it this one by Hawaiian writer Kiana Davenport. It's one of my favourite books ever!
Shark Dialogues is an epic, complex, multi-generational family saga that weaves the history of Hawaii with the story of powerful matriarch Pono and her four granddaughters. You’ll learn about the Polynesian ancestors, whaling industry, sugar plantations, different immigrant groups (Japanese, Chinese, Filipino), annexation by the US, leper colony, and the fight for sovereignty.
The language is luscious and poetic with magical realism elements that reminded me of Isabel Allende. The novel features Hawaiian myths and language (with a glossary) and some characters use Hawaiian Pidgin, so it feels very immersive and you can pick up some of the local language.
It’s set mostly on the Big Island but also features Oahu, Maui, and Molokai. It does awaken you to the impact of tourism on the islands, so while you may be left feeling guilty for visiting, I think it’s important to be aware of the reality.
Shark Dialogues is a tremendous book and I can’t recommend it highly enough.
Moloka’i is one of the most popular books about Hawaii. This captivating novel tells the story of Rachel, a young Native Hawaiian girl who is sent to the leper colony on Molokai at the very end of the 19th century.
It’s fascinating to read what life was like in the Kalaupapa colony, both the horrors and how it became a strong and supportive community over the years as the residents embraced life in the face of death.
There’s information about traditional Hawaiian culture as well as a historical backdrop—the introduction of planes, World War II, and the changes to Honolulu after the war.
Although it’s fiction, it’s inspired by the real leper colony, which you can now visit and still houses a few elderly residents (voluntarily).
If you enjoy Moloka’i, don’t miss the new sequel, Daughter of Moloka’i, which follows Rachel’s daughter. Although it’s mostly set in California with a focus on the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII, it also features Honolulu and Maui.
This is a powerful, beautiful collection of short stories that depict the glories and struggles of contemporary Hawaiian life on Maui, Oahu, Kauai and the Big Island.
The stories are all very different with a wide range of characters, but common themes are identity, family, love, home, and death. The use of Pidgin in the dialogue immerses you in the culture.
I especially loved the first eponymous story which cleverly uses the voices of three groups of Hawaiian women (young surfers, hotel cleaners, professionals) in Waikiki, Honolulu to tell the story of a young tourist whose vacation takes a dark turn.
This Hawaii novel is an enjoyable, easy read, although the subject matter is serious. It’s set during World War II in a small town on the Big Island where most residents are of Japanese heritage. Soldiers set up a base nearby and some of the local women befriend them and their mascot lion (which is based on a real lion!).
One of the women’s husband has gone missing and another’s is sent to a Japanese internment camp. The women come together to get through the tough times and bake pies for the soldiers to earn extra money.
The story is partly told by 10-year-old Ella who knows what happened to her father but is too scared to tell.
I also enjoyed Ackerman’s other books set in Hawaii during WWII. The Lieutenant’s Nurse is about a nurse who arrives in Honolulu just before the Pearl Harbour attack. Red Sky Over Hawaii is set in the village of Volcano on the Big Island where a Hawaiian woman shelters two young German girls and a Japanese fisherman and his son as the government starts taking away suspected sympathisers.
The Descendants is set in contemporary Hawaii on Oahu and Kauai (Hanalei). It’s a moving novel about Matthew King, a descendant of Hawaiian royalty who struggles to deal with his two girls as his wife lays in a coma. At the same time he has to make a decision about selling the land he has inherited on Kauai.
I enjoyed the book and it covers some important issues in Hawaii as well as grief and forgiveness. It has also been made into a good movie starring George Clooney.
If you enjoyed Shark Dialogues, I also recommend this novel by Kiana Davenport. House of Many Gods tells the story of a Hawaiian family on the impoverished Waianae Coast on Oahu from the 1960s to current day.
They have to deal with traumatised and injured war veterans, drugs, parents abandoning their kids, and limited opportunities. At first I found it bleak, but I soon became engaged by the story of Ana, who was abandoned by her mother but goes on to become a doctor.
As with Shark Dialogues, the writing is lyrical and the book is a fascinating insight into Hawaiian language, culture, traditions (especially during pregnancy and childbirth), and the wisdom of elders. Environmental justice is a major theme.
There’s also a short section set in Kauai that includes a helicopter ride over the island and is worth reading if you are planning to do that.
Honolulu is another engrossing historical novel set in Hawaii by Alan Brennert. It takes place in the early 20th century in pre-WWII Honolulu and focuses on the Asian immigrants who were brought to the island to work on sugar and pineapple plantations.
The main character is Jin, a young Korean girl who comes to Hawaii as a picture bride (like a mail-order bride) and is shocked to discover that her arranged marriage is to a poor and violent plantation worker.
The book follows the tragedies and triumphs of immigrant life and features some real-life characters such as Queen Liliʻuokalani and Duke Kahanamoku (a swimmer who popularised surfing).
I didn’t find this novel as well written as the ones above, but it is enjoyable and tells the important story of how Hawaii’s queen was dethroned.
It’s told through the eyes of Laura, a young American woman who moves from San Francisco to the islands to live with relatives after her father dies. Her uncle came from a missionary background but is now part of the wealthy elite making enormous amounts of money from the sugar industry. He and others plot to overthrow the queen to protect their business interests.
Laura ends up working for the royal family and is close to them as they struggle to save their kingdom.
For a more authentic account of these events, you might want to read Hawai’i’s Story by Hawai’i’s Queen, which was written by the last monarch Queen Liliʻuokalani herself. I found the book rather dry and difficult to get through, though.
If you are looking for an easy beach read set in Hawaii, try The Goddesses. Nancy, a 48-year-old American woman, moves to Kona on the Big Island with her teenage sons and husband as they try to rebuild their marriage after his infidelity.
Nancy becomes swept up in a dangerous friendship with her charismatic yoga teacher and things start going wrong. There are lovely descriptions of the island, but you won’t learn much about Hawaiian culture.
I hope you enjoy these Hawaii books and that they give you more insight into the islands’ unique culture and history.
If you are looking for a Hawaii travel guidebook, I recommend the detailed Hawaii Revealed series by local Andrew Doughty. We used the Maui and Kauai guides and there are also books on Oahu and the Big Island.
You can also read these other posts about Hawaii:
- Planning a Trip to Hawaii: Dos and Don’ts
- The Ultimate Maui Itinerary
- The Best Road to Hana Stops
- Where to Stay in Kauai
- 17 Unmissable Things to do in Kauai
Do you have any other recommendations for books about Hawaii? We’re already planning our next trip and I need to add to my reading list!
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