World History Connected Home    
Home List journal issues Table of contents
Printer-friendly format        

Book Review


Kaui Hart Hemmings, The Descendants. New York: Random House Trade Paperback, 2008. Pp. 320. $15.00 (paper).


Reclaiming Identity in The Descendants       

     Kaui Hart Hemmings's Hawai‘i is a world away from placid seascapes and gentle breezes; instead, consider this the anti-paradise: bickering teenagers, a clueless husband, and the wife is in a coma. This tragicomedy could certainly be defined as a domestic drama, but the pseudo-utopian backdrop of the Hawaiian Islands engenders an astoundingly complex identity of both rebellion and obligation for these descendants of Hawaiian royalty long after annexation. What begins as an odyssey of rediscovery for a family torn by tragedy, transforms into a personal reclamation of identity for its patriarch, the narrator.; Through humorous observations of the surroundings, Hemmings's witty dialogue pointedly exposes the underlying discord in the heterogeneous population of Hawai‘i—a technique which proved attractive to Hollywood, as the film version will be hitting theatres in November 2011.; Ultimately, Hemmings subverts the perception of Hawai‘i as a paradise through her protagonist's display of conflicted identity as a product of a postcolonial society, making both the novel and the upcoming film clips valuable materials for classroom discussion.;

     From the novel's first line, Hemmings displays her cynical approach to the environment: "The sun is shining, mynah birds are chattering, palm trees are swaying, so what" (3). This tone carries throughout the novel, as the narrator's observations of his surroundings seldom appreciate their beauty but instead point out the irony of his circumstances in such a place. The reader meets the narrator, Matt King, uncomfortably situated in his wife, Joanie's hospital room with his ten year old daughter, who's too busy taking Polaroid photographs of her comatose mother to understand the gravity of her mother's condition. Ever the victim of his circumstances, Matt's life goes from bad to worse, as he finds himself torn between keeping or selling land that he has recently inherited after the death of his father, and soon learns that his near lifeless wife had been unfaithful, and planned to sell their land to her lover. This debate over land fuels Matt's anxiety, and further complicates his obligations to himself and his indigenous identity; it is no coincidence that the very property that defines his family's history is the one that he is torn about selling. Hawai‘i had become progressively more suburbanized, turning small towns into strip malls—a transformation Matt admits he likes. In the hospital, Matt expresses his discomfort living in Hawai‘i, despite it being the place of his ancestors: "I run down the hall with my daughter, feeling like I'm in some other country. All around, people speak pidgin English and glare at the two of us like we're crazy white fools, even though we're Hawaiian. But we don't look it, and we don't count as true or real Hawaiians because we don't talk right either" (18). From his appearance to his speech and social values, Matt's cultural alienation in Hawai‘i parallels that of his family role, both of which he achieved through neglect. Only through his family trauma does Matt reexamine his relationships with himself and his surroundings.

     Matt's conflicts regarding his identity mirror those of the Islands' history, as the annexation of Hawai‘i to the United States in 1893 cemented the Hawaiian peoples' shift from indigenous culture to that of a colonized society. Native Hawaiians first encountered Western culture upon the arrival of Captain James Cooke in the late 18th century, soon followed by American missionaries from New England in 1820; like most colonized nations, Westerners permeated all aspects of Hawaiian life, from marrying into families to acquiring their land. Such is the case of Matt King, the descendant of a Hawaiian princess and her haole, white foreigner, husband. He deems this heritage an "issue," stating, "I belong to one of those Hawai‘i families who make money off of luck and dead people. All of their descendants, as well as Hawai‘i's missionary descendants, sugar plantation descendants and so on, are still benefitting from these old transactions. We sit back and watch as the past unfurls millions into our laps" (22). This problematic association with his family history fuels his current internal debate, as he concludes, "I don't like legacies. I think everyone should start from scratch" (23). At first, Matt believes selling the land will enable him to start over and to cleanse himself of his commitments to his family and its history, but changes his plans when he recognizes this as an opportunity to reconcile his obliviousness to his domestic responsibilities.

     In Matt's quest to reacquaint himself with his daughters and discover the origins of the dissolution of his family, he takes his daughters to Kaua‘i to find his wife's lover; instead he finds himself. Every turn on the island reveals another family story, another reminder of his obligation to his people. But to whom he belongs is precisely Matt's problem: he doesn't look Hawaiian, knows Hawaiian history but rarely shares it with his children. While driving on the Big Island, Matt points out a historic location with which Scottie is unfamiliar, surprised, he asks, "What kind of Hawaiian are you?" To which she astutely responds, "Your kind" (79). This catalyzes Matt's ownership of his identity as a Hawaiian, and not just as a father trying to catch up on the family life he has ignored. Hemmings details this recognition through Matt's assessment of history: "But now I find myself not wanting to give it up—the land, the lush relic of our tribe, the dead. The last Hawaiian owned land will be lost, and I will have something to do with it. Even though we don't look Hawaiian, even though our constant recombining has erased the evidence of our ethnicity, sharpening our flat faces, straightening our kinky hair, even though we act like haoles, going to private schools and clubs and not having a good command of pidgin English, my girls and I are Hawaiian, and this land is ours" (229). With generations of marriages, the progressive acquisition of American values, and the gentrification of small towns, Hawaiians became virtually unrecognizable, even to themselves. Hemmings doesn't render this cultural shift as some melodramatic ethnic cleansing, but rather as the gradual disappearance of the subaltern through their own lack of commitment to their traditions. As the narrator suggests, the local culture has been all around him, he simply hasn't chosen to invest in it. Pidgin English, the widely-used dialect exercised by the majority of the local population, originated from the mixing of workers from different nations on the sugar plantations of the late 19th century. The sugar plantation boom coincided with the introduction of American Missionaries to the Islands in the early 19th century, engendering the socio-economic class structures that still exist today. Americans and other white foreigners became the managers of sugar plantations and other crops, while immigrants from Japan, China, the Philippines, and Portugal, in addition to the Native Hawaiian population became field workers. This dialect comprised of English, Hawaiian, Chinese and Japanese words, along with aspects of Portuguese grammatical structure functioned as a unifying source between a diverse collection of workers, yet doubled as a derisive force against their American managers. Hemmings portrays this underlying antagonism through her subtle examples of class conflict between the aptly named Kings and other locals. While Matt King is indeed Hawaiian, his education level and mostly white appearance has led to the gradual disowning of his heritage, which he concedes is due to negligence: "We're Hawaiian—it's a miracle we own this much of Hawai‘i. Why let some haole swoop it up? We've been careless" (230). Over the course of the novel, Matt experiences a dramatic shift in how he identifies himself, first as a white person, then as a Hawaiian protecting his land from haoles, foreigners, just as his ancestors failed to do more than one hundred years prior.

     For Joanie's burial, Matt and his daughters follow the Native Hawaiian tradition by paddling her ashes out to sea. They scatter the ashes and paddle back to shore, and Matt recalls his ancestors in performing the same ceremonial act. The land, once again, reminds Matt of both his history and the direction he chooses to move forward: "And even though the art of wayfinding has been lost to me, I try to steer us to shore in as straight a line as possible" (283). Hemmings does not end the novel by rectifying her protagonist's absence or lack of commitment to his culture, but suggests his attempts to set the right course. In Matt's decision to keep the land, he reclaims parts of his identity that he had lost, but is permanently altered after the death of his wife. The tumult of Joanie's coma, in addition to learning the chaos of his daughter's lives, forces Matt to reunite the family that remains; by the end of the novel, both he and the girls have more faith in their family unit, and in turn, he is closer to reconciling his identity in this complex place he calls home.

Rebecca Hogue is a graduate student at Georgetown University in the Master of Arts in Liberal Studies program, where she is studying Literature of the Pacific Rim. She can be reached at

Home | List Journal Issues | Table of Contents
© 2011 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
Content in World History Connected is intended for personal, noncommercial use only. You may not reproduce, publish, distribute, transmit, participate in the transfer or sale of, modify, create derivative works from, display, or in any way exploit the World History Connected database in whole or in part without the written permission of the copyright holder.

Terms and Conditions of Use