Books

in brief

Capsule reviews of four recent nonfiction titles

PARADISE OF THE PACIFIC: Approaching Hawaii

By Susanna Moore

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 303 pp., illustrated, $26

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“The history of Hawai’i may be seen as a story of arrivals,” writes Susanna Moore, and in this beautifully wrought chronicle of her home state, Moore starts at the very beginning: with the volcanoes that thrust the islands into being, the seeds that floated over the ocean, landed, and took root. Human beings began arriving only a dozen centuries ago, in waves of exploration and migration from Polynesia and Tahiti. They built a culture of elaborate rules, restrictions, and rituals; a life with “enough gods to keep a man busy,” but one in which everyone surfed and swam as much as possible.

Everything changed when visitors arrived from Europe and North America. Protestant missionaries from New England sailed to the islands, bringing Bibles and plans to relieve “the degradation and misery of its inhabitants.” Not considering themselves heathens, the Hawaiians were neither as grateful nor as tractable as the missionaries had hoped. Divided by “many melancholy ironies,” the two groups did have in common some strong and remarkable women, in particular the Hawaiian queen, Ka’ahumanu, and the missionary, Lucy Thurston, a native of Marlborough. Within a few generations, the white descendants of missionaries had overcome the once-independent kingdom, leaving impoverished native Hawaiians “a minority in their own country.” “The task of understanding the past is never-ending,” Moore writes. Here she writes with great respect and compassion about a pre-colonial culture, and the vexed story of what came next.

HOW THE WORLD MOVES: The Odyssey of an American Indian Family

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By Peter Nabokov

Viking, 560 pp., $32.95

Edward Proctor Hunt is no household name. It wasn’t even the original name of the man at the center of “How the World Moves.” The man who would adopt it was born in Acoma Pueblo, N.M., in 1861 and given the name Day Break in a traditional ceremony at four days of age; “Edward Proctor Hunt” was a name he found in a Bible and adopted after being sent away to a school meant to cleanse him and other young American Indians of their history. Hair shorn, clothing changed, “[t]he shock of those first weeks were like a transfusion of a new blood type,” writes Peter Nabokov in this dazzling biography of a man whose life both spanned and exemplified extraordinary cultural changes.

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Born a Pueblo Indian — with a secret in the form of a likely non-Indian biological father — Hunt later underwent yet another change for a time, going by the name Big Snake and acting the part of a Plains Indian with a traveling Wild West show in the late 1920s. It was during this phase that he found himself at the Smithsonian Institution, reciting for the experts there the oral history of his people’s creation myth, “their equivalent,” Nabokov writes, “of the Old Testament, the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Upanishads, or the Koran.” A saga about a story-telling man and his family’s rocky assimilation, “How the World Moves” generates its own dizzying cosmology, a universe in which cultures collide, indigenous people become refugees, and many have to “strike hard bargains between tradition and progress.”

BIG MAGIC: Creative Living Beyond Fear

By Elizabeth Gilbert

Riverhead, 288 pp., $24.95

Ever since the stratospheric success of her 2006 travel memoir “Eat, Pray, Love,” Elizabeth Gilbert has been the writer (some) critics love to hate. Many expressed distaste or disdain for her chatty authorial voice and the unapologetic intimacy with which she engaged her readers (who adored her right back). When Gilbert’s novel “The Signature of All Things” came out in 2013, more than a few reviewers expressed shock at what a good, even great, writer Gilbert can be.

All of which is important to keep in mind when reading Gilbert’s newest book, “Big Magic,” in which she encourages anyone wishing to pursue a creative life to ignore, as much as possible, negative responses — when someone hates your work, she writes, all you can do is “stubbornly continue” to make it. “I cannot even be bothered to think about the difference between high art and low art,” she writes, in another possible jab at her critics. Not that this book is bitter or churlish — Gilbert’s trademark warmth and enthusiasm abound. But it is a wiser, more pointed kind of book than it might initially seem. “If you’re alive, you’re a creative person,” she argues, urging all of us — critics included — to pursue “a life that is driven more strongly by curiosity than by fear.”

ONCE IN A GREAT CITY: A Detroit Story

By David Maraniss

Simon and Schuster, 464 pp., $32.50

Two events anchor the first chapter of David Maraniss’s evocative new book about Detroit. One was the fall 1962 burning of the Ford Rotunda, a midcentury monument to the automobile industry; the other, which took place the same November day, was a police raid on the black-owned Gotham Hotel, suspected home base of a numbers racket. The Rotunda was never rebuilt, and the Gotham, which had hosted everyone from Jackie Robinson to Joe Louis to Martin Luther King Jr., soon fell to urban renewal, which more than one wit dubbed “Negro removal.”

Maraniss, a veteran reporter and associate editor of the Washington Post, aptly traces these two narratives — cars and race — in chronicling a pivotal period of his hometown’s history. Spanning autumn 1962 to spring 1964, the book bustles with vivid characters, from Berry Gordy and C.L. Franklin (Aretha’s father), to Walter Reuther and George Romney (Mitt’s father). “It all looked so promising,” Maraniss writes, paraphrasing Detroit Mayor Jerome Cavanagh’s conversation with President Johnson after his 1964 visit, but even in those halcyon days, “some part of Detroit was dying,” a casualty of white flight, the demise of labor unions, and a changing world. This is a beautifully written tribute to that lost, great city.

Kate Tuttle, a writer and editor, can be reached at kate.tuttle@gmail.com.
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