Friday, July 16, 2010

Review: Between the Deep Blue Sea and Me by Lurline Wailana McGregor

Here in Hawaii, there is a lot of talk about "aina" or land.  Aina is what gives life to all that we love about this place; it gives life to the culture, to the food, to the people, and obviously to the beauty that is Hawaii.  Because of the amazing beauty of this place, there really is this wonderful, calming spirit that people here tell me is the very real spirit of Aloha. 
For all of the welcoming Aloha spirit one feels upon arrival, there is a battle here among many native peoples to protect and preserve the land.  This struggle is seen among many native cultures today, and one that is fiercely debated.  I have always really loved Native American literature, and have tried to follow a few blogs that highlight Native American appearance in literature and film.  One blog, American Indians in Children's Literature, has been a great resource for me as I continue my interest in Native American cultures.  In fact, it was from this blog that I first noticed Between the Deep Blue Sea and Me as a winner of the Third American Indian Youth Awards List by the American Indian Library Association.  I instantly decided I had to locate this book and read it while I was here in Hawaii over the summer, so I could combine the place, with the novel's themes and ideas.

Here in Hawaii, they have sections in the library that are dedicated to "Hawaiiana."  Generally, you can find great books of history, language, and nature, with a scattering of novels either set in or directly related to Hawaiian culture.  I've looked at a few, but have to say I was most excited to get my hands on this novel by McGregor after learning it was put out by Kamehameha Publishing, which is dedicated to the Kamehameha Schools here in Hawaii.  These schools focus on the preservation of the language and culture of the Hawaiian people, and in educating Hawaiian youth.  In our small neighborhood, we have several girls who attend, as well as families that come from the mainland to bring their children to summer programs run by the Kamehameha Schools.  They are prestigious, and are an integral part of the Hawaiian community here.  As such, I knew that McGregor's book would be an excellent choice in furthering my interest in Hawaiian culture from a literary standpoint.

Synopsis:  From Goodreads, "Moana Kawelo, PhD, has a promising career as a museum curator in Los Angeles. The untimely death of her father - and the gravitational pull of Hawai'i when she returns home for his funeral - causes Moana to question her motivations and her glamorous life in California. Between the Deep Blue Sea and Me is the story of Moana's struggle to understand her ancestral responsibilities, mend relationships, and find her identity as a Hawaiian in today's world."

Review:  Moana's struggle with her life in California, separated from her Hawaiian heritage, land, and culture, bring her to a critical juncture in her life where she must decide what she most wants.  In this short novel, we get the sense that cultural identity is critical to one's happiness.  As with most native stories in literature, Moana has found that her denial of her land and people has brought about a disruption in her world; her ancestors are unhappy, can't be at rest, and Moana herself is unable to move forward without putting things right with the land.

I have to say that I really loved this short little book.  There was such a sense of "ohana" or family, and "aina" or land, that I grabbed my book and headed down to the beach.  In that place, it felt natural to read Moana's story about the spiritual connection she had to this land.  There are many spoken scenes in Hawaiian, as well as prayers all written in the language, that I had no clue what was being spoken.  I know enough phrases to understand greetings, apologies, and foods, but struggled with conversations and prayers (as mentioned).  Even without knowing what they said (and I did have a Hawaiian language dictionary I used in some scenes), it was easy enough to get the gist of what was being expressed.  Also, the use of the language was a nice technique to show how cut off Moana felt without having ever learned it herself, before she took off to be educated on the mainland.  We, like Moana, can then feel like outsiders, and long to reconnect with the culture that is in the islands.
I loved the single thread of discovery that ran throughout the entire novel.  There are not the traditional chapters you find in most books, but sections and dividers that forward the story either with a look back at Moana's father or to something mythical that was explained to both Moana and the reader.  Also, as with many native stories, we find references to the experience of the colonized, and their feeling of being overrun and used by the colonizer (generally the white man).  With this also comes the environmental concerns that all native cultures feel, as they cherish their lands and the sacredness of its beauty and power.  These themes are definitely seen throughout McGregor's story, and are made easier to understand as we watch Moana's struggle with her own identity.

Between the Deep Blue Sea and Me is actually not a young adult novel that is told to relate to teens, but Moana's adult struggle and the method of the storytelling here are readily accessible to teen readers on up.  I really loved the beauty of this story, and the Hawaiian culture that is imbued throughout the novel.  If I were teaching English here in Hawaii, I think I would definitely put this on my list, and even though I'm not teaching here, will suggest it back home.  I highly recommend checking out this small gem of a novel for its more serious look at Hawaii's struggle to protect and preserve their culture and "aina."

*FTC Disclosure:  This review was based on a library copy of the novel.

This novel counts as my final book in the 2010 Young Adult Reading Challenge, and is 12 of 12.  Another challenge bites the dust!


  1. Nice review, I especially enjoyed your introduction. We picked up a great condition copy of this book at the Friends of the Library Hawaii book sale at McKinley and look forward to reading it in the near future!

  2. Great review Becky! I don't know that much about Am. Indian literature, but I love learning more about it on your blog. :)

  3. A. Alba -- Thanks! I'm glad you got your hands on a copy of this great little book. I'll be anxious to hear what you think.

    Heidenkind -- Ah, thanks. Native American literature is so great, and I should read more of the one's I haven't gotten to yet. It's good to know that these reviews might grab a few people, to read something like this. :)