Pages / Punahou graduate and Southern California resident Kirby Wright’s second novel Moloka’i Nui Ahina: Summers on the Lonely Isle is a sequel of sorts to his previous work Punahou Blues, incorporating many of the same characters. Though Moloka’i was published under the radar and released with little fanfare, Wright’s latest book is an engrossing and sensitive tale of growing up on the Friendly Isle, and it turns out to be one of the best local-related reads of the fall.
Jeff and his brother Ben visit their ‘Gramma’ on her expansive Moloka’i farm each summer and the novel is made up entirely of those excursions, playing out in a series of episodes and vignettes of youth. In a way, the reader, like the grandmother, sees how the two children slowly mature and change, for better or worse, as they grow into adulthood.
Initially, there isn’t much of a story here–or any conflict for that matter–just entertaining and enlightening peeks into kids exploring the hidden pockets of the island hunting, farming and fishing. Particularly vivid is one fishing outing during a summer with a visiting classmate with a spoiled and slightly sadistic edge.
He pulled an ‘opae from his jar and tossed it on the web of a yellow-bellied spider. The ‘opae kicked and that alerted the spider. We watched the spider wrap up the ‘opae.
‘Shrimp roll,’ Keoni said.
Images like this keep the pages turning, since the only mystery and tension in the first half of the book comes primarily from Uncle Chipper, Gramma’s alcoholic ex-husband (not biologically related to the two kids) who still lives in a shack in a swampy area of the property. Jeff spends much of the book trying to think of ways to get the two back together. In smaller doses of apprehension, there is also Jeff’s father, a successful O’ahu attorney, who seems to have plans for his mother’s land. Jeff’s own mother is distant and doesn’t get along with Gramma, and he seems to spend occasions of the book looking for her attention and approval.
But then Moloka’i may not need that much baggage. The deceptively light-weight beginning sucks you into the characters. The grandmother, Julia Daniels, is a feisty, crotchety caricature that starts out rather unlikable, but slowly grows into an intriguing, fully rounded person with a certain matriarchal dignity to her rough country-living edges. His brother Ben on the other hand, starts off as a restless soul who seems to be in a sort of competition with his tough, larger-than-life grandmother. But toward the novel’s end, genuine, apprehensive conflict appears between Gramma and the young boy that hints at a problem bigger than simple, reckless youth.
‘Ben’s a good shot,’ I told Gramma.
‘Christ,’ she said, ‘yo’ bruthah couldn’t even hit that can on the beach.’
He took his gun off the sill, spun it around, and aimed it at her. ‘I could hit you,’ he said, ‘then I could mount your head.’
Then, after a few more bits of tense, stand-off dialogue:
She untied the cord, pulled off the pants, and brought up her rifle. She cranked the bolt action and aimed at Ben. Her gun had a light brown stock and a long black barrel shiny from oilings. ‘Don’t miss yo’ first,’ she told Ben. Her aiming eye looking huge through the lens of her bifocal.
‘Put it down, Ben,’ I said.
I walked to the pune’e. ‘Gramma, please.’
‘This bullet’s got Mistah Ben’s name on it,’ she said, ‘unless he drops his gun first.’
Emotionally charged, yet nuanced sequences like this help one overlook Wright’s sometimes forced use of pidgin; chiefly with the grandmother’s dialogue–you can practically picture Andy Bumatai in tutu’s mu’umu’u waving a ti leaf and blessing you. Although it may call to mind a larger issue with pidgin language-inflected literature in general, which may eventually end up being a semantical debate. (Even in pidgin, wouldn’t it seem more natural to spell the word ‘kids’ the standard way instead of ‘keeds?’ The two are still pronounced the same wayÃƒâ€“)
In addition to this slight lack of precision with dialogue, Wright isn’t much for visual descriptions either. He’s much more interested in compelling the narrative along with situations both joyful and tragic that make you flip pages and care for the characters, even though you can’t quite picture them. This is the real strength of Moloka’i Nui Ahina–its ability to make you feel for these people and the strange, different and intriguing rhythms of that particular island. Taking Wright’s previous writings into consideration, it seems we are progressing on a sort of memoirish timeline. Perhaps in his third novel we will finally see these young boys as adults.