- Aloha Rodeo: Three Hawaiian Cowboys, the World’s Greatest Rodeo, and a Hidden History of the American West by David Wolman and Julian Smith
In Aloha Rodeo: Three Hawaiian Cowboys, the World’s Greatest Rodeo, and a Hidden History of the American West, David Wolman and Julian Smith aim to tell the story of Hawai‘i and the broader American West through the experience of Hawaiian cowboys Ikua Purdy, Jack Low, and Archie Ka‘au‘a at the 1908 Cheyenne Frontier Days rodeo in Wyoming. Wolman and Smith state that this moment changed the story of the American West. In their words, “[i]t overturns simplistic notions of cowboys and Indians, and explores questions of identity, imperialism, and race. Most of all, though, it is a tale about people: warriors, ranchers, showmen, cowgirls, missionaries, immigrants, royalty, and countless unnamed individuals whose lives, through the micro-accidents of history, intertwine in this little-known saga of the American West” (p. 3). This statement about the American West and American expansion to Hawai‘i is almost all-encompassing, and it is this very broad scope that makes it difficult for Wolman and Smith to tell a focused story about the 1908 contest or upend traditional conceptions of the West.
The book is divided into three parts. The first examines the American development of Hawai‘i and the West and the emergence of ranching in both areas. The focus of the second part is less clear but does provide a background on the Native Hawaiian ranching families—the forefathers of the three men who went to Cheyenne. This section also includes many asides with stories that range from the Western U.S. to Hawai‘i and back again. The last part finally brings the focus to the title characters, their voyage to Cheyenne, the Frontier Days competition, and their life when they returned home. [End Page 191]
Written in the vein of Erik Larson in The Devil in the White City, Wolman and Smith attempt to balance a historical, researched book with an engaging story. Their approach is most effective in the biographical moments that dive into the personal stories of Hawai‘i’s burgeoning cattle industry. John Palmer Parker’s transition from post-revolutionary war New England to bullock (cattle) hunter and ranch owner in Hawai‘i is fascinating to see, and Eben Low’s stature as one of the legendary early Hawaiian cowboys is made clear with stories of his experience working Hawai‘i’s famed wild cattle and the dramatic tale of how he lost his hand riding on the ranch. Yet these stories are too infrequent and focus little on the cowboys Ikua Purdy, Jack Low, and Archie Ka‘au‘a who should be at the center.
After the introduction, the book follows a winding path from the geological formation of the islands to the first arrival of cattle and the eventual development of ranching in Hawai‘i. Throughout, side stories from the American West—the development of wild west shows, the economic depression that led Cheyenne to establish the Frontier Days, and the role of women and African Americans in rodeo—can offer important historical context, but their placement and role is not always clear and often serves to distract from the primary story rather than support it. It is through these historical tangents that Wolman and Smith overreach. By trying to do too much, the book lacks focus and is unable to accomplish the many claims made in its introduction.
Despite these shortcomings, Wolman and Smith are gifted story tellers, and their background as award-winning journalists attests to this. Rather than tell a truly new story about Hawai‘i or the American West, Wolman and Smith instead embed their tale within the existing literature. There is a limited amount of scholarship on Hawaiian ranching and rodeo, and the authors refer to much of that material, most notably, Virginia Cowan-Smith and Bonnie Domrose Stone’s...