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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Saturday, September 15, 2001

Book Review
Hawaiian tale adapted for children

By Ann M. Sato
Special to The Advertiser

"KA-HALA-O-PUNA: KA U'I O MANOA (The Beauty of Manoa)" by James Rumford, Mªnoa Press, $12.95. For children 8 and older
James Rumford, a prolific Manoa writer, artist, papermaker and publisher has developed a national reputation as a children's book author and illustrator, with a specialty in retelling true tales and legends from the distant past.

Now he and Malama 'O Manoa, the Manoa Valley residents group, have published an illustrated Hawaiian tale — they don't want to call it a children's book, though it's suitable for 8 and up — that has as its purpose more than readers' enjoyment or education.

Malama 'O Manoa commissioned the book from Rumford — who wrote, illustrated and published it — as a means of drawing attention to the controversy over a Hawaiian Electric Co. proposal to erect poles and high-voltage lines on Wa'ahila Ridge above Manoa Valley. Many residents of the valley have protested that the plan will mar the beauty of the area, and possibly endanger flora and fauna. The decision is in the hands of the Department of Land and Natural Resources.

The book is a retelling of a romantic though rather bloody Hawaiian legend that reveals how the ridge came to resemble a recumbent man.

"Our agenda is to make people understand in a different way how much this valley means to the people who live here and how important it is as a cultural and historical site for all Hawai'i," said Rumford. He said that in talking to people who've been involved in such efforts here and elsewhere, no one could recall a book like this being used in this way. "It's a very subtle way, but we hope that it will be effective," he said.

Rumford admits that when Malama 'O Manoa came to him, and he looked at Kimo Keaulana's retelling of the story, on which the book was to be based, he despaired. It seemed impossible that such a tale — about a woman who is repeatedly killed by her jealous lover, and then brought back to life by the gods — could become a children's story. But then Rumford's wife, who he says laughingly "is much more literary than I am," suggested that the story has all the elements of a western classic, Shakespeare's "Othello," in which a man is so blinded by jealousy that he destroys his own life.

Rumford researched "Othello," read more about the Kahalaopuna tale — of which there are many, many versions — and began to write. He chose not to depict any of the violence in the story visually and selected his words carefully, but he didn't sugar-coat the story.

Since then he's taken the book to schools and asked children a series of questions: Do you have a best friend? All hands rise. Has anyone else ever been jealous of you and your best friend? Many hands rise. Has that person ever told you bad things about your best friend? Again, a number of hands. And then he asks, Who do you believe, your best friend, or this person? And, predictably, a majority of children admit that they believed the jealous one.

"The story is about the universal human condition," he said. "It's also extremely Hawaiian." Rumford believes the public has a hard time accepting violence and mature themes in Hawaiian stories, although they exist throughout such Western bodies of work as Grimm's Fairy Tales and the Greek myths.

What does this have to do with Wa'ahila Ridge?

The story is about Kahalaopuna, "ka u'i o Manoa" ("the beauty of Manoa"), born of the rain and the wind and so lovely that a rainbow follows her wherever she goes. She is engaged to the warrior chief Kauhi, a prideful man. When jealous friends tell him lies about his love, Kauhi turns against her and becomes so enraged that he eventually does away with her, despite the protection she receives from her owl aumakua. In the end, Kauhi is punished by the gods, sentenced to lie looking up at them in shame forever, atop Waahila Ridge.

"I injected some feelings of my own in there. I feel he's sorry about it but there's nothing he can do, retribution is going to come. In 'Othello,' he has to kill himself, but in Hawai'i, the gods take care of it."

Rumford's retelling of the Hawaiian story is meant to gently remind us, as individual readers and as a community, about the nature of true caring, and the danger of heedless pride.

Rumford's work is invariably beautifully rendered, cleanly worded, sophisticated and yet readily approachable for a wide range of ages and this one is no exception. He brings to his children's book work the same thoughtful care that's required in the process of papermaking, his first love. (His first children's book, "The Cloudmakers," published in 1996 by Houghton Mifflin, tells the story of how papermaking spread from China to the rest of the world.)

Rumford's watercolors for this book draw the eye back again and again and his notes at the back of the book reveal the painstaking research he undertook in order to better understand the tale and make appropriate word choices. He adopts resonant phrases from the Hawaiian here with good effect. (There is a Hawaiian-language version of the book and a cloth-covered, slip-cased limited edition, numbered and signed, for $39.95. A CD with musical accompaniment is also in the works.)