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Reviewed by:
  • Local Story: The Massie-Kahahawai Case and the Culture of History by John P. Rosa
  • Nitasha Tamar Sharma, Associate Professor, African American Studies
Local Story: The Massie-Kahahawai Case and the Culture of History. By John P. Rosa. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2014. Xi + 163 pp. Timeline. Notes. Bibliography. Index. $45.00 cloth; $19.99 paper

Historian John Rosa makes a compelling case for returning to the infamous 1930s Massie case that rocked the Hawaiian Islands and garnered national attention. In Local Story: The Massie-Kahahawai Case and the Culture of History, Rosa prioritizes a local perspective to illustrate how this watershed moment helped form and consolidate a “local” identity. The Massie case centered on Navy wife Thalia Massie’s account of being kidnapped and assaulted by “some Hawaiian boys” (p. 1). The case against the defendants ended in a mistrial as a result of contradictory testimony and mishandled evidence. Local Story discusses the implications of this trial and events leading to a second trial, which resulted from the kidnapping and murder of one of the defendants, Joseph Kahahawai, by Thalia’s mother, her husband, and two Navy men. Found guilty and sentenced to ten years of hard labor, their sentences were commuted to one hour by Governor Lawrence Judd.

Local Story is less about the details of what happened that fateful night or a comprehensive retelling of the trials. In five chapters and a brief introduction and epilogue, Rosa instead “examines the complexities of telling and retelling the case’s historical events as a local incident in the islands as opposed to an American one that cast Hawai‘i as merely a small outpost of the United States” (p. 3). In addition to centering place, class, and gender in the development of a local identity in Hawai‘i, the book uses “local” in several other senses including: foregrounding the perspectives of Hawai‘i’s people; focusing on [End Page 161] how these events reverberated within the islands long after the 1930s; incorporating local practices like talking story to re-narrate history. The chapters build Rosa’s case by focusing on the five accused local boys (chapter 1) and marking their distinction from haoles through a discussion of Thalia Massie, geography, and the protection of white womanhood (chapter 2). Chapter 3 illustrates how Kahahawai’s murder fractured relations between haole and Hawaiian elite and led to Hawaiian resistance alongside other local people of color against haole oppression. We return to the courtroom of the Massie-Fortescue murder trial in Chapter 4 to see how its conclusion provided a sense of closure for continental audiences, but for locals it remains an “open wound” (p. 66). The final chapter, like the introduction, positions this book and its author within the corpus of representations of these incidents. The epilogue offers an interesting discussion of how the book, itself, is an exercise in local storytelling, highlighting the place-specific and culturally informed ways people tell and retell stories in order to craft local senses of belonging.

Local Story primarily reveals how the Massie-Kahahawai cases constituted a racial project that shaped a local identity by employing a U.S. racial logic that privileged haoles over nonhaoles. “American dominance included powerful ideologies from the continent” (p. 32) rooted in the U.S. Black/White context. These ideas, such as the threat nonWhite men posed to White womanhood, “were then transplanted onto the terrain of Hawai‘i” through the U.S. military, the law, news accounts, and haoles’ perceptions of locals. The book’s second contribution is its attention to the discursive role of storytelling and the “aliveness” of history, a term Rosa uses to demonstrate how fact and fiction coalesce to shape our memories of the past in ways that impact human relations long after a structuring event. Focusing on the “nature of historical storytelling” (p. 3) highlights peoples’ roles in the construction of the “culture of history,” (p. 7) illustrated by Rosa’s skillful self-reflexivity when he weaves himself in to the book’s narrative. The author’s life story, which spans the neighborhoods in which Kahahawai and the Massies lived and includes time on the continental U.S...


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pp. 161-163
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