Posted at 11:19 a.m., Friday, August 23, 2002
Historian-novelist Ozzie Bushnell dies at 89
A microbiologist and medical historian, Bushnell began writing novels while still teaching at the University of Hawaii's School of Medicine. His early works, including "Ka'a'awa" and "Moloka'i," paved the way for several generations of Island writers to tell their own stories, using their own voices.
"He was something of a heroic figure," said Joseph Stanton, a University of Hawaii English Professor. "He had a passion for science, writing, reading and history. He's a great example of someone writing in a workmanlike way, endeavoring to promote understanding through literature."
Born in Kaka'ako to an Italian-Portuguese father and a Norwegian mother, Bushnell studied science at the University of Hawai'i and received his post-graduate degrees from the University of Wisconsin.
After returning home to teach, Bushnell began writing fiction in his spare time, working out of converted 8-foot-square piano crate stuffed with 2,000 books inside his Manoa home. His writings showed a deep passion for all things Hawaiian and a deep sadness for what Hawai'i has lost over the years.
"I couldn't live anywhere else. I'm in love with this place," he said in a 1979 interview. "I remember being 15; I came out of a slum area of town and looked up at the mountains. I saw Tantalus and I said 'Auwe,' and damn near cried."
Bushnell's first novel, "The Return of Lono," won the Atlantic Monthly's fiction award in 1956 and was published in New York. It appeared at a time when almost all Hawai'i literature was written by outsiders like Jack London, Mark Twain and James Mitchener.
Over the next 25 years, Bushnell published four more novels, each dealing with aspects of Hawai'i history. "Moloka'i" tells the story of Kalaupapa, Hawai'i's quarantined outpost for leprosy patients; "Ka'a'awa" is about changing O'ahu life in the 1850s, when many native Hawaiians were dying of diseases brought by white men; "Stone of Kannon" and its sequel "Water of Life" are about the first Japanese contract laborers who came to Hawaii in 1868.
Several of Hawai'i's best writers today say Bushnell inspired them.
"He challenged the younger writers of various ethnicities to come forward and tell their stories," Stanton said. "He was very insistent that people with other backgrounds should be the ones writing about Hawai'i."
Bushnell, a stickler for proper English in his university classes, also was a strong advocate for the use of pidgin English.
"I'm all in favor of using it," he once said. "People who make a fuss about pidgin are missing the point and also betraying their racist attitudes. Each of us should speak both standard English and pidgin."
Bushnell, who retired from UH after 24 years in 1970, saved his most deeply felt work for last. His 1993's "Gifts of Civilization: Germs and Genocide in Hawaii" is a masterful combination of his skills and interests: microbiology, Hawaiian history and literary craftsmanship.
The book, which Bushnell worked on for more than 50 years, is the definitive study of how Native Hawaiians, living in isolation from the rest of the world for centuries, were susceptible to and nearly wiped out when the first visitors arrived in the Islands carrying a host of unknown germs and diseases, including tuberculosis, smallpox, Hansen's and venereal diseases.
Bushnell won the Hawai'i Literary Arts Council's Award for Literature in 1974. The council cited him for "contributions to the art of language in which (he) brought life to fact and reality to fiction, and to both, love for Hawaii."
Bushnell is survived by his wife, Betty; sons Andrew (Nancy), of Kapa'a, Kaua'i, and Philiip (Sharon), of Chapel Hill, N.C.; and a daughter, Mahealani, of Honolulu; eight grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
No services are planned, at his wish. The family suggests gifts in his name to the University of Hawai'i Foundation, earmarked for the UH Medical School.