Review: Wai-nani: Voice from Ancient Hawaii by Linda Ballou

Title: Wai-nani: Voice from Ancient Hawaii
Author: Linda Ballou
Reviewed by Barbara Sharp Milbourn

Travel writer and photographer Linda Ballou delivers a generous slice of Hawaiian history with details of land and sea so vivid, it is almost better than being there.

Wai-nani: Voice from Ancient Hawaii is a meticulously researched account of the Hawaiian Islands around the time of Captain James Cook. The major theme of the novel is the dismantling of the social hierarchal system based on kapu (taboo) that had been brought to the Islands by the Tahitians years before. But what a story!
Meet Wai-nani whose character is based on Ka'ahumanu, favorite wife of Kamehameha the Great, unifier of the Hawaiian Islands around 1810. She is a young woman of royal descent so at home in the sea that she thinks of herself as half sea creature. Her comfort in the water is juxtaposed to her conflict on land, particularly her resistance to the kapu system. We accompany her as she leaves home and meets Makaha (Kamehameha) two hundred years ago when chiefs in feathered capes and tattooed warriors battled for island dominion, priests read the future in pig entrails, men and women ate in separate houses, and human sacrifices were commonplace. We know her and her people, and we connect to place through stunning details of mamo birds, koa trees, 'ie'ie flowers, and taro fields. We drink the bitter 'awa, trek up steep palis, peer into smoking volcanoes, and wave slide bearded monsters.

Much changed with the arrival of Captain Cook, the death of Kamehameha, and the pressure brought to bear on the system. But some things are eternal—love, the circle of life, and the grand and vibrant sea.

The author’s reverence for the land and its people inhabits her words. Linda Ballou is a new voice from ancient Hawaii.

Barbara Sharp Milbourn is a writer and editor living in Nashville


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