Monday, May 14, 2012

Over the Reefs by Robert Gibbings

Over the Reefs by Robert Gibbings, 1948
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While at a bookstore in Berkeley, this book caught my eye. I liked the cover (doesn’t hurt that turquoise is a favorite color of mine) and I was blown away by the illustrations.
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The map on the end pages promised all sorts of great destinations, New Zealand, Fiji, Tonga, Samoa, Cook Islands and the Tahiti. Since I spent my honeymoon in the Cook Islands, the Bibliotiki does have a focus and soft spot for the region.

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Upon reading this book, I found the first 100 pages to be a bit of slow going. It starts off in Tonga but quickly moves to Samoa and stays there for while. So long in fact they made Gibbings a Chief of one of their islands. Though once they made him Chief the book gets less choppy. It was also by then I realized he wasn’t going to cover Fiji or New Zealand except in passing reference.

More then half way into the book he arrives in the Cook Islands and it includes one of the best passages in the book:

One of the most ignominious acts in a man’s life is repeated daily when he puts on his trousers. I know of no garment more detrimental to his natural dignity then those limp tubes into which he inserts his legs. Is there anything in the world more limp then an empty pair of trousers?…

Finally, some personality! He goes one to decry that the Rarotongans’ of the Cook Islands have forsaken their traditional dress for the white man’s way, which saddens him. He isn’t very happy with the island of Rarotonga but then moves on to visit Atiu, Mauke, Mitiero, Mangaia and Aitutaki all in the Cooks, which generally fare better for him. So much so that I was beginning to worry he wouldn’t make it to Tahiti.

With just 27 pages left in book he finally sails to Tahiti, he soon earned my interest and respect with this passage:

Soon I after I left Tahiti in 1929, I received a letter from James Norman Hall, with whom I had stayed. He wrote: ‘We have pulled down the old native house in which you lived and are building a bigger one instead. It is yours whenever you wish, for as long as you wish. We call it “The House that waits for Robert.”
This is the house.
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Now I LOVE James Normal Hall and became instantly jealous that JNH had not build a house for me. Gibbings, that lucky bastard. And he didn’t make it back to Tahiti for 18 years! Sadly, when Gibbings does make it back JNH is in America so he missed him. I was hoping for reports of them heading out to Quinn’s for beer and dancing.

At this point I am confused why this man who is a big deal in Tahiti has only left 27 pages for it, I look to see other books he wrote and saw he wrote “Iorana: A Tahitian Journal” in 1932 so I guess he got it covered. I then also realized I just saw that book in a small Californian town but it was $35 and I am cheap. Geez, now I will have to pick it up.

I finished reading Over the Reefs and it was fine, still like the illustrations better then the text. I then went on to research about Gibbings and saw that he had led an interesting life. He was instrumental in bringing back wood engravings as a form of art and illustrated a ton of books. He did a lot of traveling and had many ladies in his life. He also was a pioneer in diving and would make illustrations under water. Check out this website of his vintage diving costume. That just looked like a bad idea.

Below are some sweet illustrations from this book, I tried to not go too crazy with my scanner. Enjoy.

Oh, if someone could build me a “House that waits for Bibliotiki” preferably in Hawaii or really anywhere, I would be most appreciative.

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