Georgia Ka'apuni McMillen

"School for Hawaiian Girls"

(Reviewed by Judi Clark 04-22-02)

"The niece, the girl named Moani, has this knowledge, although she is not aware of it yet. It lies in her guts waiting for her to discover it: the knowledge that another girl, the one we left behind in the sugarcane field that night, has walked alongside us each day of our lives. And that we are, after all, children of Lydia's memory."

School for Hawaiian Girls

One of the last people to see sixteen-year old Lydia Kaluhi on that fateful Friday afternoon in 1922 was her brother Sam. Sam was waiting for cross-eyed Patience to come out of the missionary school for Hawaiian girls to bring the lunch pot down to the church ladies. But on this day, his beautiful sister Lydie (as they call her) is the one who comes out of the school. Sam knows his sister is up to something. She has the same thing about her as a year ago when she carried a baby in her belly and their mother made Lydie disappear to Maui. So he pesters her until he learns that Lydie plans on that very day to have her boyfriend Charlie Moku paddle her to the steam freighter so she can go to Maui and take back her baby girl. Sam doesn't like the idea of her going alone and wants her to wait a week until after which he has money. But Lydie doesn't trust that she'll go in a week, and says she must go now, swearing him to secrecy as she cuts through the sugarcane field.

Read excerptLydia, however, never makes the trip to Maui. She doesn't even make it out of the sugarcane field. When Lydia does not come home that night, their grandfather calls Sheriff Pua and during the search they find her brutally murdered body just off the cane-haul road. Not only does Sam keep Lydie's plan a secret, he also chooses not to reveal the knowledge that he saw a horse waiting for its owner and spied a red shirt in the sugar cane fields that very day, signs that should have told him that his sister was in danger; signs that told him who did this awful thing to her.

The Kahuli family (which is reduced to the grandfather, mother, Sam and younger sister Bernice) only know one way to deal with death and that is to not ever think of the person again. And they've had enough practice what with burying nine siblings and their drunken father on the hillside. After all, no matter their mother's church-going pretense, they are just another Hawaiian family. So as the investigation proceeds without resolution, they stop opening the door to Sheriff Pua and his unhelpful but painful updates. Eventually Sam's illegal businesses bring in enough money to feed his family, pay off family debts and finally move the family to Honolulu where he gets into the hotel business.

Thus by the present time, which is 1985, Bernice's granddaughter Moani does not know anything about a great-aunt or even much about where her grandmother and Uncle grew up. Moani was raised helping Uncle in the hotel business; a far cry from the poverty of the earlier generations. She was expected to work with Uncle after college; instead, she came back and on a lark bought a couple of kayaks and from there built up a very successful kayak touring business. (Uncle "called me a lõlõ, but I didn't care. I had figured out a way to have fun and get paid. I didn't see what was so dumb about that.")

But, as she gets closer to 40, she's ready to sell Paradise Lost and start a new business --- how long can a girl paddle kayak for a living? She has her eye on an old Hawaiian school on Big Island desiring to turn it into a hotel. The experience she has with her kayak clientele tells her that there is a need for a hotel that is more secluded than those like Uncle's in Honolulu. When she goes to Uncle to see if he will help her out with a loan, her grandmother tells her that she and her sister, Lydie, went to the school she wants to buy. Sister? Well this is the first she's heard of this. And then at the annual Trinity Girls School Alumni weekend, she meets an elderly woman who taught at the School for Hawaiian Girls and later learns the family secret - that Lydia had an illegitimate child. Though her Uncle tells her not to look into the matter, Moani is determined to find out if she and her sister Puanami might have a cousin.

Although Moani finds what she is looking for, the shocking family secrets are never revealed to her. As Sam, Bernice and the schoolteacher, have their say about the events of 1922, we learn what happened bit by bit, but Moani doesn't. I found this technique to be a good way to reinforce the notion of how family history is lost or replaced in subsequent generations; and, perhaps this is for the better. "You see? Everyone wants to be remembered well." Another interesting and key point to this novel is the fact that Moani is not likely to have any children at her age, and it is assumed that because Puanami is mentally retarded, neither will she. So it is easy to understand why Sam and Bernice do not feel the need to share the facts about their sister's death, for what is the point, if there is no one to carry forward anyway. "Will you remember me as I am now?" Lydia would say, her hair wild, her blouse soaked in blood....Or only as you wish to remember me?" Of course, that is only a surface excuse. Hui, there is a lot to this novel.

The way the story is told is by interspersing the past events and memories with the current day events, mainly from Moani's perspective as she's prepares and executes her final kayak trip. This kayak trip becomes more and more challenging as she first decides to bring Puanami along and then Uncle's wife number six invites herself along for the trip - well Uncle forces her along, now that Moani's gone to Uncle for a loan - it's his way to assert control. Did I mention that Uncle's a mean "sonna bitch?" Anyhow, it does seem that Moani is acquiring more and more family, contrary to Uncle's efforts.

For me,the strength of this novel is not only its native Hawaiian culture (which is why I wanted to read the novel in the first place) but the relations between the characters. Even though there are elements of familiarity in many of the characters, they are never stereotypes. Like the events of the past, there are many surprises. But the best part is the interaction between Moani and Pu. Pu was "mentally arrested" at the age of eight when she stayed under water too long after their mother drove the car off a bridge. With their mother dead, Puanami was sent to St. Theresa's, where she was made to go to church at 5:00 every morning then, dumped in the day room with a nun playing a piano all day. This was her life for 18 years until Moani took Pu home to live with her. There is an honest kind of love and compassion in the way Moani deals with Pu.

I always cherish a novel that has any amount of the magical realism in it. Although it is slight in this novel, it is enough. In fact, because the author does not overplay this aspect of the novel, it is as it should be, just as normal as any part of the daily life. In fact, there is much of this novel that is left for the reader to discover and think about. I can see where some might want more closure (like, was there a ghost in the school house?), but for me, I like how the novel hints but doesn't blatantly spell everything out. Oh, sure, the main plot is clear as day - by the end you know what happened in 1922 and I shudder as I think about this. But the reason that Sam, Bernice and even the school teacher have for not wanting the past known and the motivation for Moani needing to know will have you thinking long after the novel is finished.

If you are into discovery gems of stories that are overlooked by the publishing industry, I highly recommend that you try this one.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 4 reviews

Read chapter excerpt from School for Hawaiian Girls

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About the Author:

Georgia Ka'apuni McMillen was born in 1957 and is a Honolulu native who graduated from the Kamehameha Schools and University of Hawaii. She lived in New York City for many years, where she graduated from New York Law School and practiced law. Her short stories have appeared in Bamboo Ridge, Journal of Hawai’i Literature and the Arts. She lives with her family on the island of Maui where she practices law and is writing a second novel. About Us | Subscribe | Review Team | History | ©1998-2014