Saturday, February 10, 2001
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Posted on: Saturday, February 10, 2001

Romance lives in the Islands

By Ann M. Sato
Special to the Advertiser

"HAWAII IN LOVE, Spells Fables and True Stories of Island Romance" by Toni Polancy, Barefoot Publishing, trade paperback, $15.95

When Maui writer and editor Toni Polancy sought feedback on her book, "So You Want to Live in Hawaii," her editors liked the fact-filled guide, self-published guide for newcomers — except for one segment, a chapter on romance that they found too "trivial."

Polancy, who had a long career as a journalist before moving to Hawai
i in 1991 (not for romantic reasons, but because her daughter lives here), believes in the value of a good editor. She didn’t buy their argument but she yanked the chapter, anyway.

It would be the seed of her next book, she decided, because, no matter what the editors said, love and romance are among life’s primary motivators, prompting people to make major life changes that reason and practicality might argue against.

The original concept was of a romantic guide to the Islands: ideas for lover-friendly places to go, things to do, enlivened by a few contemporary love stories and some passion-related Island trivia.

Then Polancy began to work on the book and discovered in herself a taste for research that she hadn’t hitherto suspected, and a wealth of older stories that she felt compelled to tell.

"I just buried myself in the library," said Polancy by phone from her Kihei home. It surprised her — both what she found, and how much she liked the finding.

What began as a contemporary guide became a then-to-now series of myths and real-life anecdotes, what she likes to call "a history of the Islands through its love stories."

The quirky book that resulted is hardly a coherent history of any sort but it does give a flavor of various eras, beginning with such legends as the famous one about the lovers who became the half-flowers of the beach and mountain naupaka plant, as well as several lesser-known moolelo involving liaisons between gods and mortals in ancient times.

From there, Polancy moves on into history with the story of the marriage of Queen Liliuokalani, who had mother-in-law troubles, and the relationships of other historical figures.

As she enters the 20th century, Polancy focuses on true stories she uncovered in old books and newspapers, or heard from older folk from the wide web of acquaintances she built while publishing a group of real estate magazines on Maui. (So involved did she become with this book that she sold the magazines to her daughter to have time to work on it.)

Finally, there are present-day love stories, perhaps the least compelling segment of the book, as Polancy herself acknowledges. "Everyone’s life is a story," she said. "I used to teach a class based on this concept and I really believe it. Everyone’s life falls into the pattern of a story if you interview them and gather the facts."

But, she added, "It takes a while for a story to mature, to become valuable, to finish."

So the story of a couple who met in the checkout line at the supermarket, though it contains some elements of drama involving unlikely coincidence, somehow lacks the power of the story of Myrtle King and David Kaapu, who came from widely divergent backgrounds to form a life partnership in the 1930s. The former hasn’t had time to "cook."

The Kaapu’s story, based on a rare copy of Myrtle King Kaapu’s 1977 book, "I Married a Prince, a Cinderella Story from Hawaii," is Polancy’s favorite, and one older Islanders may readily recall.

The late David Kaapu, known throughout Oahu as "David of Punaluu," was an alii descendant who, in the early 1900s, insisted on living in the traditional Hawaiian way, building a thatched compound on ancestral lands in Punaluu, fishing, tending a loi and wearing a malo.

In those pre-Renaissance days, this was not a popular choice; it was the era when many Hawaiians found that the only route to success and acceptance was to turn their back on their culture.

Polancy said Kaapu’s first wife left him rather than share his romantic but uncomfortable ideals. Ironically, his soul mate turned out to be a Mainland haole, a teacher who so fell in love with his intelligence and integrity that it was she who asked him to marry her, and in a rather unusual way.

An exceptional woman in every respect, Myrtle King Kaapu, who died in 1985, continued to teach, and went on to serve on the school board. But she also lived in a thatched hut with Kaapu for some years, washing clothes by hand and wearing kikepa whenever she was home. (They did finally build a frame house.)

Polancy unwisely didn’t stop at the stories that make this book a painless introduction to Island history for tourists, and an enjoyable anthology for kamaaina.

Rather, she appended the lovers’ guide to Hawaii that was the book’s original purpose and this strange mixture detracts from the overall effect. With all the care that was lavished on collecting and writing the love stories, the guide has the feel of an afterthought, poorly developed. And the two parts speak to different audiences. Polancy said she might spin the book into two when it’s time to revise it.

Polancy said gathering the contemporary stories was easy; everyone knew someone whose story she should hear, and she was passed from friend to stranger. A few of the best stories escaped her net because the people who’d lived through them weren’t ready to share, even with the names changed; Hawaii is too small a place.

And, as happens in real life, some of the stories don’t have the endings you’d expect: The dog who flirts hasn’t found a mate for his owner yet. The lady in the big house didn’t marry the Tongan tree-trimmer.

As Valentine’s Day approaches, Polancy is hearing from readers of the book, which is just reaching stores, that the stories they like best are the older ones, the ones that have had time to "finish."

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