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The Boy Who Tricked the Ghosts

Kīhei de Silva

The second verse of the old hula song “Waiho ‘Ao‘ao” tells us: “Maika‘i kūlana hale wili / ‘A‘ohe mea hana o loko – A fine-looking sugar mill / But no machinery inside.” The visual appeal of Ellie Crowe’s The Boy Who Tricked the Ghosts and the book’s seeming authenticity as a retelling of the legend of Kaululā‘au make for a fine-looking sugar mill, but its machinery, although hardly absent, is that of a confectionery geared to spinning cotton candy out of native sugar cane. Parents be advised: this is not the tough-fibred kō on which Hawaiian children once strengthened their teeth and gums. Unless otherwise prepared, your child will come away from reading Ellie Crowe’s Boy stranded, with a tummy full of fluff, on a bagasse heap of missed opportunities for accurate, meaningful exposure to Hawaiian culture.

The Boy Who Tricked the Ghosts is based on the legend of Kaululā‘au, the kolohe son of Kaka‘alaneo, ruling chief of 15th century Maui. The boy’s penchant for tricks and duplicity results in his banishment to the ghost-inhabited island of Lāna‘i where, through tricks and duplicity, he vanquishes these akua ‘ai kanaka and returns, forgiven, to his father’s court at Ka-malu-‘ulu-o-Lele, the old name for Lahaina. The legend was recorded, ma ka ‘ōlelo makuahine, in the 19th century by Abraham Fornander: the Hawaiian is there to be read, contemplated and modeled.* The legend was retold in the 20th century by Mary Kawena Pukui as the English language children’s story The Mischievous Boy of Maui. It is there to be read, contemplated, and modeled; it serves, in particular, as an example of what to set aside, keep, and embellish in a manner appropriate to culture and audience. Crowe is aware of Fornander and Pukui, of foundation and precedent; she supplies us, on her book’s final page, with an impressive bibliography of the Kaululā‘au legend in which the two are listed in company with Martha Beckwith, Lawrence Gay, Kalākaua, and Vivian Thompson. Awareness, however, does not guarantee authenticity. Crowe’s is an invention-plagued version of a Hawaiian legend for which there is ample and legitimate substance. Her story misinforms. It disregards. It distorts. In its effort to create a product that appeals to the western ear and eye, it shirks responsibility for the accurate, sensitive transmission of our indigenous culture.

The most damaging of The Boy’s offenses is that inflicted on the names and relationships that constitute the foundation of Hawaiian identity: mo‘okū‘auhau, genealogy. Crowe begins by stripping Kaululā‘au of his inoa. The boy’s name, as given to us before diacriticals by Fornander, Emerson, and a host of Hawaiian language newspapers is Kaululaau, a name pronounced and understood by our kūpuna as Kaululā‘au, “the forest, the grove of trees” (Pukui, ‘Ōlelo No‘eau, #1943; Dictionary, 369). Crowe, in an apparent effort to make the name more reader-friendly and in complete disregard of the meaning-altering powers of the ‘okina, sees fit to shorten and revise the boy’s name to Ka‘ulu, “the breadfruit,” and to insert, in his father’s mouth, the invented explanation, “You are named after the breadfruit tree.” Ka‘ulu is no more Kaululā‘au than breadfruit is forest or Abner is Abraham. Crowe commits the same offense when giving the name “Kalaneo” to Kaka‘alaneo, the boy’s father. Kalaneo is a term fraught with ambiguity, a smorgasbord of nouns to which the adjective “empty, desolated” is attached; “Kaka‘alaneo,” on the other hand, speaks of clarity, purity, enlightenment, and rank. Crowe also erases completely from her account the name of Kaululā‘au’s mother; both the genealogical and legendary record tell us that she is Kanikaniaula (perhaps Kanikani‘ā‘ula), a woman of chiefly descent (from either Hawai‘i Island or Moloka‘i) whose extremely high rank entitles her to a feather cape the likes of which Maui has never before seen.** “‘O Kakaʻalaneo ke kāne, ‘o Kanikaniaula ka wahine, ‘o Kaululā‘au ke keiki kāne”: this simple sequence of man, woman, child—remembered for 600 years as part the royal line that begins with Hanala‘aiki and ends with Kalanikūpule—is altered with a few strokes of Crowe’s pen into Kalaneo the man, nameless the woman, Ka‘ulu the son.

Crowe’s retelling does further damage to Kaka‘alaneo’s name by distorting his rank, role, and personality. Tradition and genealogy tell us that Kaka‘alaneo ruled Maui and Lāna‘i co-jointly with his brother Kaka‘e. Kaka‘e-of-the-small-voice, it is said, was either mentally impaired or content to let his brother run the show; in either case, it is Kaka‘alaneo who is remembered for his thrift, energy, and successful centralization of his islands’ government (Fornander, Polynesian Race, II:82–83; Beckwith, Mythology, 383). Crowe demotes Kaka‘alaneo from his status as ruling chief of unrivaled authority to that of a subordinate ali‘i in the court of an unnamed “Maui King.” “Ka‘ulu,” we learn, is the nephew of this king (Kaka‘e?), and it is this king (not “Kalaneo”) who banishes the boy to Lāna‘i. “Kalaneo,” for his part, is recast in the role of milquetoast apologist for his son’s misdeeds. When “Ka‘ulu” exhibits a predilection for mischief, “Kalaneo” determines that “my son is just lonely” and orders all boys born on the same day as “Ka‘ulu” to be brought to court as playmates for his companion-deprived son. When “Ka‘ulu” and the boys are later reprimanded for breaking the branches of all the breadfruit trees in Lele, “Kalaneo” pleads for mercy and offers restitution: “Please don’t punish my son . . . Tomorrow I’ll plant a big grove of young breadfruit trees to replace those destroyed by Ka‘ulu.”

Crowe, then, is guilty of using a confectioner’s marketing principals (short names are sweeter, a lonely son more attractive, a sympathetic father more toothsome) in playing fast and loose with names, relationships, and traditions that many of us regard as inviolable. These are, in a sense, iwi kūpuna—not the physical bones of our ancestors, but the bones of a story, the segments of a mo‘o-‘ōlelo—by which we remember and cherish our ancestors. Crowe is also given to arranging these bone segments in unprecedented patterns of cause and effect. Fornander tells us, separately, that Kaka‘alaneo orders all of Kaululā‘au’s male birth-mates to be raised in court, and that Kaululā‘au grows more mischievous with age. Crowe creatively—and incorrectly—connects these mo‘o by explaining that “Ka‘ulu’s” loneliness and mischievous tendencies are cause for his father’s edict. Tradition tells us, separately, that Kaka‘alaneo is remembered for planting the breadfruit grove at Lele, and that Kaululā‘au is known as the boy who uprooted the breadfruit trees of that district. Crowe connects these dots by explaining that “Ka‘ulu’s” attack on the original breadfruit trees of Lele is the reason for “Kalaneo’s” ameliorative planting of the famed grove. Fornander tells us that Kaululā‘au is left on Lāna‘i with “ka ai, ka ia, ke kapa, na pono a pau loa” (vegetable food, fish, kapa, and all the necessities); Pukui tells us that the boy’s heroics render Lāna‘i safe for human habitation, and it becomes a place of “good homes and farms.” Crowe converts Fornander’s unspecified necessities into “a large clump of young plants . . . Taro! Breadfruit! Banana shoots!” and recasts “Ka‘ulu” as the native planter responsible for the greening of the “desolate” island.

Crow’s “clump of young plants” is also illustrative of the short-of-the-mark nature of even her most successful efforts at inventing culturally appropriate detail: the plants are native, but Crowe avoids using their Hawaiian names: kalo, ‘ulu, mai‘a.† Missing entirely from her list, moreover, is the plant for which Lāna‘i’s climate and soil are best suited: ‘uala, sweet potato (Handy, Native Planters, 520). The opportunity for valuable, non-pedantic instruction—a lesson in language and agriculture—thus passes with minimal positive result. Negative results are more often the case with Crowe’s inventions. Readers are left with the impression that Hawaiians threw “bamboo darts,” painted their faces white in Halloween-like imitations of ghosts, ate after dark, chugged ‘awa out of gourds, and feasted in their sleeping houses. Hawaiians, in fact, made darts out of flowering cane stalks (these were sometimes propelled by means of a cord attached to a bamboo “whip” stick), did not practice face-painting (although one inner thigh of the naked man who represented the god Kahoali‘i was painted with stripes or patches of white), generally regarded akua—ghosts—as almost indistinguishable in appearance from humankind (a variety of tests were employed to discover the “ghostly” nature of these beings; one of these runs contrary to the The Boy’s rendering of Pahulu at the pūnāwai: ghosts did not cast reflections in pools of water), were careful to eat before sundown, drank ‘awa from coconut cups (‘apu ‘awa niu), and kept their cooking and eating areas (gender-specific activities) separate from their shared sleeping area, their hale noa.††

A comparison of the house-burning episode in the Crowe and Pukui versions of the story serves as a final illustration of the distortions that characterize The Boy Who Tricked the Ghosts. Both versions begin with Kaululā‘au’s plan to incapacitate the ghosts with food and ‘awa and to set fire to their residence while they sleep. Pukui is very careful to arrange the details of this episode in a culturally appropriate and instructive manner: food and ‘awa are consumed before dark; ‘awa is dispensed from a bowl and the boy only drinks “a few drops when [it comes] to him;” when night arrives his enemies stumble to their sleeping house where the kukui lamps are extinguished and all falls quiet. A single ghost escapes the ensuing blaze, stops at the already mentioned pool of water, and attacks the reflection of Kaululā‘au who, from an overhanging tree branch, has provoked the ghost by making “an awful face.” When the ghost surfaces, our ever-resourceful hero “has a great rock ready,” drops it on his enemy, and watches him flee in defeat, “never to return to Lāna‘i.”

In Pukui, everything holds its place. Even in the wā kōli‘uli‘u of legendary heroes and man-eating ghosts, rules are observed, order is upheld, and cultural integrity is maintained. With Crowe (and her illustrator, Tammy Yee) everything collapses into everything else; distinctions fall away; definition is lost; even western story-telling cliches—though four centuries removed—work their way into the mix. “Ka‘ulu” takes his ‘awa to the sleeping house where the party-hearty ghosts intend to “drink and feast all night.” The ‘awa is held in two big-gulp gourds that the ghosts unceremoniously “tip back . . . and guzzle” until they nod, sway, and drop. The sleeping house, as depicted by Yee, is populated by pasty faced, snaggle toothed, claw fingered, Glenn Grant obake ghosts arranged in non-Hawaiian configurations (head to the wall, feet to the door) and surrounded by a jumble of inappropriate items: campfire, pig’s jawbone, ‘awa and food-scrap bowls, ‘awa cups (apparently Yee did not read Crowe very carefully), water gourds, sharks’ tooth club, and three-barbed spear. When the leader of the ghosts escapes to the pool, “Ka‘ulu” (who is now “sick with fear”) makes a suspiciously western, “googlie” eyed,” thumbs-in-the-mouth version of an awful face. The ghost plunges into the pool, receives from “Ka‘ulu” a resounding ipu-whack on the head, and fails to surface. What follows is pure Freddy and Jason, an all-American horror flick cliche:

The top of the water was still. Minutes went by . . . Surely, no one could stay under water so long. He breathed a big sigh of relief and started to climb down. Suddenly Pahulu lunged up to the surface with a blood curling [sic] scream, howling and clawing at him.

The over-extended climax (in hula, this is called the “double ho‘i”—you end and then end again, apparently to increase the impact of your performance) concludes with “Ka‘ulu” beating the ghost with a branch and pretending to call on an army of warriors. “Aaah, there are too many of you tricksters,” Pahulu cries and flees from Lāna‘i in complete defeat.

Jane Jacobs (Systems of Survival: A Dialog on the Moral Foundations of Commerce and Politics) identifies two distinct ethical systems that govern human behavior in contemporary society: the “guardian” ethic where protection is the aim, and the “commercial” ethic where profit is the aim. When the two systems collide—as happens, these days, with increasing regularity—they often give birth to what Jacobs calls a “monstrous hybrid.” Adrienne Kaeppler defines this hybrid, as it relates specifically to indigenous cultures, as “airport art”: the mixing of traditional and innovative elements in a nontraditional manner, with little care given to older values and priorities, in order to make a marketable product pleasing to the eye and ear. The process of transmitting culture and of honoring the gods, chiefs, ancestors, and nature “has been subordinated to the product, which need not be understood to be enjoyed” (Hula Pahu, v1:226).

We have, in The Boy Who Tricked the Ghosts, something of a monstrous hybrid, a piece of airport art, a fine-looking sugar mill whose machinery converts kō into sweet, cloying, $14.99 nothings. The book, however, is not without value to those of us who subscribe to the guardian ethic. If we fortify ourselves first with Fornander (Hawaiian Antiquities, IV:482–488), Beckwith (Hawaiian Mythology, 441–442), and Pukui (The Water of Kāne, 188–195), Crowe’s story becomes a tool for self-education and for the education of our children. In this context, The Boy Who Tricked the Ghosts challenges us to get things right—to bring all of our guardian resources to bear in debunking its authenticity, undoing its inventions, and restoring its iwi.

Aunty Pat Nāmaka Bacon remembers how her mother would gather her children together at sundown; they would lie down on quilts, review the events of the day, “and then she’d go into a story of this or that until we all fell asleep.” Her mother, Mary Kawena Pukui, guarded the details of these stories carefully, taking meticulous care to tell them in exactly the manner that she, herself, had heard them from her elders. Aunty Pat reminds us that “Some people heard stories and then rewrote them in a western sense . . . As a result, a lot was lost. That was not my mother’s style. She always said, ‘I’m speaking from my own doorway and not anybody else’s.’ You speak only of things that you know. You don’t take from elsewhere.” (Pukui and Laura Green, Folktales of Hawai‘i, xi.)

The Boy Who Tricked the Ghosts challenges us to eschew the sugar mill and re-occupy our own doorways. We would do well to initiate this process by gathering our children again on quilts at bedtime and telling an old mo‘olelo that begins with: ‘O Lele, ‘o ia ‘o Lahaina i Maui, ka ‘āina. ‘O Kaka‘alaneo ke kāne. ‘O Kanikaniaula ka wahine. ‘O Kaululā‘au ke keiki kāne kalohe, ka mea nāna i huhuki ka ‘ulu o Lele. Pi‘i ke kino o Kaululā‘au i ka nui, pi‘i pū me ke kalohe . . .

Pīpī holo ka loiloi.


* The Fornander publication includes a side-by-side English translation by John Wise and Thomas Thrum. Although this translation is frequently clumsy and sometimes inaccurate, it does provide readers who don’t speak Hawaiian with a valuable sense of Hawaiian storytelling conventions—conventions that are sadly lacking in Crowe’s re-telling.

** The story of Kanikaniaula’s feather cape is told in the opening pages of Fornander’s legend of Eleio, the story to which Kaululāʻau’s is attached. Tammy Yee, illustrator of The Boy Who Tricked the Ghosts, repeatedly depicts the story’s ali‘i in full-length, red and yellow capes—even when Fornander clearly states that such capes were so rare that even Kaka‘alaneo didn’t own one: “O ka ahuula, aole i loaa ia Kakaalaneo ko Maui alii.”

†Crowe’s glossary of the Hawaiian words used in her publication indicates the minimal value she places on the need to employ Hawaiian language in a Hawaiian story. There are only six words: ‘aumakua, ‘awa, imu, malo, ‘opihi, and poi. The last is defined as “cooked taro”—a patently incomplete and dismissive explanation of the Hawaiian staff of life.

†† Darts: Beatrice Krauss, Plants in Hawaiian Culture, 89–90. Kahoali‘i: Beckwith, Hawaiian Mythology, 9. Akua almost indistinguishable from humans: Pukui, The Water of Kāne, 190; Pukui and Green, “The Woman Who Married a Caterpillar,” Folktales of Hawai‘i, 60; Emma Nakuina, “The Shark Man, Nanaue,” HHS Fourth Annual Report, 10–19; Pukui, The Polynesian Family System in Ka‘ū, Hawaiʻi, 122. Eat before dark: Pukui, Polynesian Family System, 150. Hale noa not for eating: Handy and Pukui, Hawaiian Planters, 299; Pukui, Polynesian Family System, 10.