Shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor, a Japanese Zero, its gas tank hit, crash-lands on the small island of Nihau. The Hawaiians who live there know nothing of the outside world, unaware even that a war is going on. Although they are only a few miles from Kauai, the paternalistic haole owner of the island, Aylmer Robinson, carrying on his father's tradition, has forbidden newspapers, telephones, radios and visits from the outside world. He even discourages literacy and the English language in an attempt to protect the islanders, childlike and innocent in his view, from the wickedness of the outside world.
Therefore, the Hawaiians welcome the young pilot, patching his wounds and singing for him, though Howard Kaleohano, the man who found him, has, almost accidentally, removed the pilot’s gun and papers. While they fear his anger at finding a stranger on Nihau, they want only for the godlike Mr. Robinson to come and deal with the intruder. In mutual incomprehension, the pilot and the islanders crowded into Howard’s house talk past each other, until the elderly Japanese beekeeper, Shintani, is fetched. He listens to the pilot speak, but backs away saying that he does not understand the dialect.
The call goes up to fetch Yoshio Harada, a nisei hired by Mr. Robinson to run the ranch house. Though born on Kauai where half the population was of Japanese descent, Yoshio has suffered all his life, but especially during a stint in California, from the humiliations and abuses of racial prejudice. Only on Nihau does he feel that he has finally landed among people who accept him for who he is. This comfortable life is thrown into chaos when he is brought before the pilot, who tells him that the Japanese have destroyed Pearl Harbor. Yoshio comes to believe that the Japanese have taken the entire island and gone on to invade Kauai, with little Nihau being next. He struggles to decide which course of action will best protect these people whom he has come to love.
Paul tells the story, which is based on true events, in lusciously simple prose, capturing the characters, their dilemmas, and the hard beauty of the island. Yoshio’s conflicting thoughts and motivations are particularly well-presented. I found each of his disastrous steps perfectly believable. The pilot, too, a mere boy, is vividly drawn, as he is presented with a conflict between his simple belief in obedience to the Emperor and his desire to go home to his girlfriend. I loved his boyish enthusiasm when Howard teaches him to surf. I closed the book overwhelmed once again with the wreckage that war leaves in its wake, even is such a remote corner as Nihau. The hysterical response to the attack on Pearl Harbor, which Paul captures so well, is a grim reminder of what has happened in this country over the last decade.
I found myself thinking about paradises. Robinson, a devout Christian, believes that innocence—which he understands to be ignorance—is the chief characteristic of paradise. After all, it was eating of the Tree of Knowledge that got Adam and Eve tossed out on their ears. This is how he justifies his isolation of the population on the island he owns. While his paternalism is, of course, despicable, I wondered if the idea held any merit. After all, when my children were little, I tried to be careful in feeding them knowledge of the world’s evil, enough to protect them but not enough to give them bad dreams.
Yet for me, ignorance is the opposite of paradise. Even as a small child, I hated not knowing what was out there. The huge black holes in my understanding of the world terrified me, and I felt as though I lived in one of those ancient maps, where the earth is a small flat island, surrounded by huge seas that eventually cascaded off the edge of the world.
Knowledge gives us the ability to know what is out there. It enables us to think critically about what we are told instead of simply accepting everything at face value. It keeps us from being the willing pawns of men like the Emperor and Mr. Robinson. My paradise is not a lost one; it is one that I enter further into every day, with every new thing that I learn.
I hope many people read this novel, a small story, perhaps, of a handful of people trapped in a dilemma not of their choosing, but a story that has deeper resonances and a satisfying conclusion.