Several readers of Once There Was Fire, A Novel of Old Hawaii have commended my research skills. I have a confession to make: I didn’t conduct scholarly research before I started writing the book; instead, I referred to many historical sources, as needed, while I was writing it. It would be more accurate to call my investigative “method,” such as it was, “grazing,” rather than research. I included a bibliography at the end of the book, but to the extent the word “bibliography” implies serious scholarship, that was a misnomer. “Suggested reading,” would have been more appropriate, and if I issue a revised edition of Once There Was Fire in the future, I’ll change the heading on that list.
In the meantime, here are some sources I can suggest to readers of Once There Was Fire who would like to learn about the people and events depicted in the novel.
The Warrior King, Hawaii’s Kamehameha the Great, by Richard Tregaskis. This was the first book I acquired when I set out to write the novel in 2004. It was the only full-on biography of Kamehameha I could find. It was helpful to me as a kind of Cliff Notes guide to events and people. It’s a helpful survey of Kamehameha’s life and times for readers with a casual interest in learning more about him. The Warrior King is an easy read because it’s more like a story than biography. I’d have to classify it quasi-fictional because Tregaskis includes a lot of dialogue which I later decided he must have invented. I couldn’t find any support for any of it when I consulted the same sources on which Tregaskis must have relied (more about those sources below).
Captain James Cook, a Biography, by Richard Hough. An easily digestible overview of the life and voyages of the explorer who “discovered” the Hawaiian Islands. (He stumbled across them by accident.) Cook named them the “Sandwich Islands,” after his patron, the 4th Earl of Sandwich (who—yes—invented the sandwich), and the name stuck for decades in the world beyond Hawaii. Hough chronicles Cook’s life like the adventure story it is. The book is entertaining and held my interest all the way through. Cook’s encounter with the Hawaiians takes up just thirty-three pages of this extensively sourced 370-page biography.
The Life of Captain James Cook, by J. C. Beaglehole. I will read this definitive, 772-page biography someday. This is one of those books I grazed, looking for some additional information about Cook’s time in Hawaii. The book is for you if you’re looking for a detailed tick-tock of Cook’s life and his trials, tribulations, and explorations. Despite its length, Beaglehole’s book is an inviting read, which is why it’s still on my to-read list.
The Return of Lono, a Novel of Captain Cook’s Last Voyage, by O.A. Bushnell. This enjoyable fictional account of Cook and the Hawaiians was recommended to me by the late Santa Cruz author James Huston. I read it cover to cover and promptly set it aside, to avoid inadvertently cribbing from it in Once There Was Fire. Bushnell, who died in 2002, was a historian and microbiologist at the University of Hawaii who wrote several engaging historical novels about the islands. Artfully weaving fact with fiction in a first-person narrative, Bushnell puts you on the scene of the tumultuous events that unfolded during Cook’s visit to the “Big Island” of Hawai‘i in 1779. You’ll enjoy it as a novel. I enjoyed it as a novel and as a lesson in how to write historical fiction.
I’ve listed several books about Cook because his meeting with the Hawaiians (an encounter of the worst kind for him) was a pivotal event for the Hawaiians and thus, the narrative fulcrum in Once There Was Fire. Hawaiian history likely would have unfolded differently if Cook hadn’t shown up when he did—or if somebody else, say the Japanese, had gotten there first. The Hawaiians’ encounter with Cook is a signal event in Once There Was Fire, but most of the novel is about what happens before and after Cook. I did a lot of grazing to tell those parts of the story. Here are some additional suggestions for readers who want to “drill down” to granular details:
The Life and Times of John Young, by Emmett Cahill. In fairness, this 166-page biography is easily read in its entire. I didn’t get around to reading it cover to cover while I was writing my novel because of self-imposed time constraints; with only so many waking hours in a day (and fewer as I aged), I had to choose between writing and reading, and the more I time I spent on the former, the less I had for the latter, so I dipped into this excellent book as needed. There’s enough material in this biography—including wonderful illustrations by the late Hawaiian artist Herb Kawainui Kāne—to inspire a fictional first-person novel about Hawaii from Young’s haole perspective, a la Shogun.
Ruling Chiefs of Hawaii, by Samuel Kamakau. Kamakau (1815-1876) drew directly and indirectly on stories gleaned from people who lived during Kamehameha’s time for a series of articles he wrote for mid-19th century Hawaiian-language newspapers. Ruling Chiefs, an English translation and compilation of Kamakau’s work, was first published in 1961. This 430-page book (in small font, be warned!) is not for the faint of heart. The book’s editors describe Kamakau’s Hawaiian prose as “florid,” and this quality is not lost in translation. Moreover, Kamakau’s account as presented in Ruling Chiefs is not linear. It tends to loop back on itself; the same event may be recounted more than once in widely separated chapters. I’ll never read this entire book, even in many sittings, but I know I’ll keep going back to it.
Ancient History of the Hawaiian People, by Abraham Fornander. Fornander (1812-1887), who emigrated to Hawaii in 1843, was a Jack of many trades, “at various times a whaler, coffee grower, surveyor, publisher, editor, journalist, judge, inspector general of education, folklorist, and historian.” Ancient History is a companion work to Ruling Chiefs, covering much the same ground more accessibly for haole readers.
Hawaiian Antiquities (Mo‘olelo Hawai‘i) by David Malo. This is another book I dipped into, repeatedly. Malo (1795-1853), was raised in the court of Kamehameha the Great. His Hawaiian Antiquities, translated by Nathaniel B. Emerson, is perhaps the definitive source of information about pre-Christian Hawaiian culture and society, especially since it is well-organized. When I needed to know something specific about, say, religious practices, food and drink, idol worship, or Hawaiian “surf riding,” I could always find it in the table of contents or the index at the end of the book. I also found a lot of good information in Emerson’s footnotes.
If you are a truly serious history aficionado, The Hawaiian Kingdom, 1778-1854, by Ralph S. Kuykendall is for you. Just as Beaglehole is the gold standard for Cook biographers, Kuykendall’s history of the Hawaiian monarchy is both a benchmark and an important source for other histories of old Hawaii. Kuykendall sets forth almost anything you could possibly want to know about the Kingdom in exhausting detail. This volume is the first of three, chronicling the Kingdom from its birth under Kamehameha I to its demise at the hands of American planters and merchants (Hawaiian citizens all) under Queen Liliuokalani.
Finally, remember that in a pinch, there is always Google and Wikipedia. Happy reading!