Title: The Islands at the End of the World
Author: Austin Aslan (he’s here on WP, and he writes back, guys!)
Specs: 355 pages of story, followed by an excerpt from a sequel.
Publishing Info: Wendy Lamb Books, 2014
Note: I saw this a few times at the library here in town, picked it up, and put it back. But last time, my wife is the one who handed it to me and said, “I think you should read this one.” She always gives good recommendations, so I decided to try it after all. And I’m so glad I did! I follow MixedRaceFeministBlog both here on WordPress and on Facebook, whose articles and comments have started opening my eyes to the perils, annoyances, frustrations, and isolation that mixed race peoples across the world suffer from at the hands of society. This book helped me to understand more.
Diverse Elements: Features a female protagonist, mixed race Hawaiian and white, living on the big island of Hawai’i. Incorporates Hawaiian gods and goddesses. Also, the MC is epileptic, and the story explores themes of neurodiversity and accepting neurodiverse peoples.
Summary: Leilani, who goes by Lei, loves surfing and driving and eating shaved ice, but those first 2 she’s not really supposed to do. Lei is epileptic, and even though she takes medication for it, her seizures can be triggered by certain food additives like aspartame, stress, etc.
She lives on the Big Island of Hawai’i, far removed from the touristy shores of O’ahu and Maui. Her mother is the daughter of a prominent kahuna on the island. Her father is a white professor teaching at the local university. For Lei, who attends the public school, her mixed-race status makes her a pariah, and she has only one friend. Lei wants to fit in and is in love with her island heritage, but is unsure how to reconcile all the parts of herself.
At the beginning of the novel, Lei and her father are getting ready to head to O’ahu so that she can participate in a drug trial for her epilepsy. The trial will last two weeks, and then they’ll head home. Lei has a really fantastic relationship with her dad and is looking forward to the trip. Before they leave, a tsunami warning is issued for the Pacific, and her mother notes that the U.S. President did not make it to the global climate conference.
Once in O’ahu, Lei and her father are in the hotel when a press release from the U.S. President shows him in what looks like a cave. He says there is information he needs to tell the public–then all the power goes out. And out in the sky, a green cloud spreads.
The first few days aren’t awful. Lei begins the trial, but it soon becomes apparent that without power, she won’t be able to continue. Next steps? Getting back to the Big Island with no transport, riots breaking out, and Lei’s running low on her epilepsy meds. The flower-shaped green cloud isn’t going away, and Lei can almost swear she hears whispering in her mind…
What I Liked: The book is well-written, fast-paced without becoming chaotic, and has a strong sense of voice. I like the relationship Lei has with her father and the rest of her family. Though her mother, grandfather, and brother are only in the book for a short time, it’s the little things like her mother always tucking a flower behind Lei’s ear and the family sing-a-longs that drive home how much Lei’s family means to her.
What I Disliked: Ummm….I don’t remember ever stopping to think, “That would have been better executed by—” I guess my only criticism would be…sorry, I can’t think of any. Maybe that for me, it was too easy of a read? Possibly? But since I’m planning on getting my hands on the sequel in any way possible, I can’t say that this “criticism” holds any water.
What I Loved: (spoilers here–be forewarned) Ok, so this book is kinda “Christiany,” meaning the two main characters have some conversations about God’s will and stuff that could have come across as really preachy and privileged and shallow, which would have normally dropped my rating down a couple stars, but in this case it was really meaningful, leaving Lei with more questions but also a sense of peace that she supplements with drawing upon the Hawai’i part of her background, taking strength from the old stories about the strength of Pele the Fire Goddess who refused to give up her right to stay in Hawai’i.
Lei begins to imagine herself in a way that parallels Pele as she battles against the fear that is causing Native Islanders to react violently against the tourists. Another thing I loved about this book is how it vividly depicts some of the struggles of being mixed race (which I admittedly have never had to deal with–it was a real eye-opener for me) in a culture that most mainland Americans forget about. She is both white and Hawaiian. She has loyalty to both parts of her culture. Some that she meets along the way see her and others’ humanity; others don’t. In the end, it’s not exactly resolved in a “kumbaya around the campfire” way, but her own sense of belonging is strengthened.
And (lest this drag out into infinity), the last “fav” of the book is how her epilepsy is what saves not just her but the ENTIRE FREAKING WORLD. To sum it up, her neurodiversity builds a bridge between her mind and the mind of the “attacking” situation. She and other neurodiverse people begin to experience the situations in ways drastically altered from the “normal” public, and it is her connection and her accepting of her own experiences (and to add to that, her intimate knowing of HERSELF, her own inner strength coming forward) that ultimately saves humanity.
Oh yeah. One more. RESPECT FOR ALL CREATURES, REGARDLESS OF WHETHER WE UNDERSTAND THEM. Boom.
“If the world really is broken, I’ll never go to prom. I’ll never finish watching Star Trek with Dad. I’ll never pass a driver’s test, go to college, or have a boyfriend. I’ll never backpack in Europe. I’ll never have another ice shave.”
“‘Why did God break the rules, Dad?’
We go back to the living room and sit. ‘There’s a couple easy outs. One is to say, “There is no God.” Another is “This was always His plan; we’ve always known about Revelation and we were supposed to be prepared.” But both try to fit a square peg into a round hole, yeah?’
I shake my head, clueless. . . . ‘Dad, I’m lost.’
‘The world has changed, right? Our understanding of a loving God is being challenged by new variables. But what are we supposed to do, reject the entire notion of God, just because the new scenario doesn’t match what we anticipated? Or do we decide to keep exploring? Keep asking new questions to understand something we still have a lot to learn about? . . . Kind of ironic isn’t it? I’m angry. But it’s my very nature as a scientist that keeps me from rushing to convenient conclusions.'”
“Pele fought her sisters here. She won her right to remain on the Big Island. Dad and I fought our way home, and we won our place here, too.”
“Chants and ancient whispers dance through my mind, loudest among them the prophecy of King Kamehameha. So many forces have led me to be here: Uncle Akoni; the sheriff and Grandpa, once partners; finding a van with gasoline; a mountaintop guru who can wield a slide rule and a radio-telescope array. The timing of my trip to O’ahu to change up my meds is itself an amazing thing. I don’t know whether it is fate or chance or God or gods. But I feel the mystery in the air.”
Note: Going on the Recommendation shelf in my classroom :).