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Book Review: Sharks in the Time of Saviors by Kawaii Strong Washburn

If a God is a thing that has absolute power over us, then in this world there are many. There are gods that we choose and gods that we can’t avoid; there are gods that we pray to and gods that prey on us; there are dreams that become gods and pasts that become gods and nightmares that do, as well. As I age I learn that there are more gods than I’ll ever know, and yet I have to watch for all of them, or else they can use me or I can lose them without even realizing it.

I’ve been to Hawaii twice. The first time I went was in 1997, when Kendell and I went to Oahu with some friends. We did all the tourist things, the Arizona Memorial (my favorite day), snorkeled in Hanauma Bay, explored Waikiki, went to Turtle Beach (although we didn’t see any turtles), spent a day at the PCC, suffered from sunburns, hiked the short trail to Diamond Head, ate brunch on the beach. I enjoyed that trip, but Hawaii didn’t get into my blood until 2017, when we took our whole family to the Big Island.

Something about that trip made me fall in love with Hawaii. Maybe it was that I went out running almost every morning. The hike out to Papakōlea or the afternoon I spent wandering Pu'uhonua O Hōnaunau (which connected me to my childhood self reading about Queen Liliuokalani) or the morning we went snorkeling together and I looked out through the blue water and could see my whole family in ocean dotted with dolphins. It wasn’t really about the beach, as I don’t love the beach and actually had two of my life’s most terrifying beach experiences on that trip. More, it was about a connection, completely unearned due to my status as a haole, to the island itself. I remember standing on a rocky beach during one of my morning runs, watching the waves and smelling that Hawaii smell and feeling how the island ran deep into the ocean floor and stood by itself in the water, an entity that didn’t form me but that somehow, in that moment, acknowledged my existence. A land of different gods than any other place I’ve touched, gods whose stories happened without people like me but are deep and strong as the root of the island.

Sharks in the time of saviorsI thought of that feeling a lot as I read Sharks in the Time of Saviors by Kawai Strong Washburn. It tells the story of the Flores family, Malia and Augie and their children Dean, Nainoa, and Kaui. Nainoa, who was conceived in the Waipio Valley on a night when the old gods seemed to walk, is a sort of a miracle: as a child, he fell off a boat off the coast of Kona, but the sharks that swam in didn’t eat him, but saved him. Supernatural events start happening, continue happening as the family grows and tries to survive as the sugar industry collapses. The story is told through each of the family members’ perspectives. And, honestly: that is all I want to tell about the book. Partly because it is a hard one to describe, mostly because it is one you just need to read in order to experience: magic realism set in Hawaii, gorgeously and movingly written.              

I loved this book. I did set it down for a good two weeks, when I got entirely too frustrated with Dean and his choices. But it wasn’t a book that would let me let go, so I picked it back up and finished it in two fast gulps of reading. I loved it because I had been to some of the places in the book, and because of the writing. Because half the time I had to set it aside for a few minutes because it made me cry so often—it is a raw and painful story, but it hit some of my sore spots in restorative ways. I don’t think it is a book that everyone will love; it’s not particularly approachable and as far as plot goes not a lot happens, and the ending isn’t really tidy.

But I am so glad I read it, because it made me feel a part of Hawaii again, like I did on that trip. Not in a cultural-appropriation way. But just connected to the islands as they are part of the world and I am part of the world, and the gods only barely glanced at me but I kept them with me somehow. Or maybe they kept a part of me with them, in the flowers and the waves and the stone and the volcano.

Some fragments I loved:

Whole nights after the sharks, your father and I had been wondering what would happen,  what you would be. I believe that graveyard day was the first time we truly understood the scale of you. . . My time as a mother was the same as those last gasping breaths of the owl, and soon enough you’d have to gently set down my love, fold it up into the soil of your childhood, and move beyond. (Malia)

You can talk about a thing over and over.  Or see movies or listen to songs that you think say something about it, right? But still it’s nothing compared to the whirling jump of blood in your chest when you find, at last and at least for a moment, someone that wants you as much as you want them. (Kaui)

How many nights did we make like that? How long was I stupid enough to believe we were indestructible? But that’s the problem with the present, it’s never the thing you’re holding, only the thing you’re watching, later, from a distance so great the memory might as well be a spill of stars outside a window at twilight. (Noa)

               It’s an impossible thing to explain, motherhood. What is lost, the blood and muscle and bone that are drawn from your body to feed and breathe a new life into the world. The bulldozer of exhaustion that hits in the first trimester, the nauseous clamps of the mornings, the warping and swelling and splitting open of everything previously taut or delicate, until your body is no longer yours but something you must survive. But those are only the physical. It’s what comes after that takes more.
               Whatever part of me flowed into you from my body, it turned us tight into two people that shared a soul. I believe that of all my children. Fathers will never understand the way you get deep in us, so deep that there’s a part of me that remains, always, a part of you, no matter where you go…You’d wake in the crook of my arms with the whites of your eyes alive with brightness and wonder, drinking in every hew thing as your impossibly smooth skin pawed at my cheek. Windowsills we rocked by. The fuzz of your first hairs under my nose as I nuzzled you in your sleep. . . The whole world was there, in your face, beaming out of your perfect brown skin. Everything was made new, over and over. It shook me with something so holy and complete I didn’t need a prayer to know there were gods with us, in us. (Malia)

Book #1 of my Summer Reading Challenge

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