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  • Hawaii Through Western Eyes:Orientalism and Historical Fiction for Children
  • Craig Howes (bio)

At the New York World's Fair, Walt Disney unveiled a shrine to one version of the ideal relationship between children and their cultures. "It's a Small World" celebrates a universe of round-headed, button-eyed, cherry-cheeked children, identical except for skin shade and ethnic accessories —Mexican sombreros, Arab veils, Hawaiian leis. This sideshow subordinates a child's cultural identity to the cause of a higher humanism. In the small world, cultural peculiarities are intriguing, and even entertaining, but finally accidents of birth, and thus no essential part of the child's nature. Disney's little people are differently clothed versions of the same child.

This vision of the child as cultural innocent shapes a great many children's books, and such works have their merits, since they avoid the racism of many stories that portray minorities as ridiculous by nature. But many writers and critics have recognized that the small world's apparent relativism actually trivializes the history and cultural practices of any ethnic heritage other than the dominant white, male, Western Judeo-Christian one.1 Everyone starts out as ethnically neutral; unfortunately, some children are doomed to grow up into foreigners.

This paper has two purposes. By briefly examining a number of books, then concentrating on Peter Roop's The Cry of the Conch as my representative text, I'd first like to add Hawaiians to the long list of ethnic minorities victimized through the cultural stereotyping found so often in children's books. But second, I'd like to argue that racist assumptions pervade and undermine Roop's and many other writers' sincere attempts to create positive, sympathetic Hawaiian child heroes largely because Hawaii has suffered acutely from the effects of what Edward Said calls Orientalism. This second purpose has important implications for evaluating all children's books dealing with other cultures. By examining how Hawaii was described by its first visitors, and how these records, in turn, inform and direct subsequent writing, we can see how a historical understanding of intellectual and academic racism can help critics, scholars, and readers of children's literature protect themselves against the charges of [End Page 68] impressionism, kneejerk liberalism, and aesthetic crudity so often levelled against those who describe a children's text as racist. Ideally, then, such an understanding can lead not only to better books, but also to more reliable ways of recognizing and evaluating the ethno-centric assumptions implicit within many works for children.

Hawaii's history as a setting or subject for children's books closely parallels its history as an object for Western scrutiny. At their most negligible, such fictions simply retell an old chestnut Hawaiian-style. Works like Wili Wai Kula and the Three Mongooses (Goldilocks and the Three Bears) or The Three Little Hawaiian Pigs and the Magic Shark do, I suppose, represent a mild sort of cultural bullying, but the total lack of concern with history or ethnicity places such books at roughly the same level as the inevitable Hawaiian Christmas cards portraying Santa Claus riding a surfboard.2 When children's books retell Hawaii's history, however, much more is at stake, since the writer must somehow deal with the "discovery," exploitation, annexation, and assimilation of a separate people. A look at how a few juvenile biographies and histories account for annexation and eventual statehood shows just how manipulative such works can be. The "revolution" (1893) which brought Hawaii under direct U.S. influence was carried out by white American businessmen, acting with the generous but unauthorized support of the U.S. military stationed in the islands at the time. The goal was to overthrow the Hawaiian monarchy, an institution which itself emerged after Western contact, but which had become troublesome due to its understandable desire for national self-determination. The monarch who suffered the indignity of being deposed was Queen Liliuokalani, whose fiery anger at her fate, and whose grim determination to regain both her throne and her nation's independence, would seem to make her an excellent subject for children's historical writing.

Her fate at the hands of some writers, however, has...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6563
Print ISSN
0147-2593
Pages
pp. 68-87
Launched on MUSE
2009-01-01
Open Access
No
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