Friday, August 21, 2015

White Savages in the South Seas by Mel Kernahan

White Savages in the South Seas by Mel Kernahan. 1995

In my readings over the last few years about the South Pacific, I kept seeing references to this book. Some were dismissive of it and after reading it I can only surmise they don't like their idyllic view of islanders busted.

I greatly enjoyed this book. And since I like to focus on woman writes of South Pacific literature I found Mel to be quite the character. The first paragraph on the back of this book pretty much sums it up: 
White Savages in the South Seas is a book about Polynesia after the cruise ship has sailed, the jet has flown off into the sunset and the maitai curtain has dropped on a dream that was more performance than reality.
She has been visiting Polynesia since her first trip in 1959 and the book covers to 1992, which is a pivotal time period of change in that region due to the impact from the west. Before you had easier air travel, the amount of visitors wasn't so great. But then it all changed...

She starts off in Tahiti, going to the very first strip show in 1966. Apparently it was not a success.  You might think the book will just be a laugh but she quickly moves on to politics and nuclear testing that the French did in the islands. She does then lighten it up a bit with a story about Susy No Pants and dancing at the infamous Quinn's bar in Tahiti. I am always curious to hear about Quinn's since it is mentioned in many books and I have some LP's that were recorded there. It sounds like a total dive and kinda wonderful.

The middle of the book contains a depressing story of when Mel is back in California and stumbles upon a local spot visited by Tahitians who have moved here. Including one young girl whose island was pretty much destroyed by the nuclear testing by the French and her misery of having no home.

I was enjoying the book and then it really gripped me once she got the Cook Islands. I went to the Cook Islands on my honeymoon many years ago and always have an interested in them. Even though she was writing about the Cooks about 10 years before I went there, it brought back a lot of memories of what the islands were like especially with her part about staying on Aitutaki.

She has a chapter where she takes her dream boat ride on a cargo ship to another island. And then is sick as a dog due to a massive storm and seasickness. It is called "Damn you Robert Dean Frisbie". RDF is a legend in Polynesian literature which includes the infamous story of him tying his children to a coconut tree in a hurricane on an island in the Cooks. I too have a dream of taking a cargo ship to around to the island but now realize I would probably wind up like her, heaving over the side of the boat.

I will leave you with a quote from the book that really rang true for me and also would for those who love the "paradise" version of the South Pacific but know it isn't real. 

'Damn you, Robert Dean Frisbie', I say aloud, ' and all the rest of your motley crew of misfit dream spinners, including you, James Norman Hall and Charles Nordhoff; Beatrice Grimshaw and Frederick O'Brien; damn you Robert Louis Stevenson and W. Somerset Maugham - I wish I loved you less'...
 'Damn you for making such a glory out of unrequited love. Damn your  loneliness, damn your pain. Damn your longing, damn your books, your words, your sirens' words - which can be the only mates of people like us who yearn to belong to an image of the South Seas...'

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