#Review: Sharks in the Time of Saviors, by Kawai Strong Washburn

This is one of those times where I admit that I’m never really sure what I consider an “official” book review; there have been times when I labeled something a reviewlet and then talked about it more than I did in full “reviews,” and I want y’all to know that I read this book and I like it and I recommend it but having finished it I’m not sure what to say about it.

In a way, this book is a triumph of the #readaroundtheworld project; I picked it up on the recommendation of a (white, or perhaps I should say haole) friend in Hawai’i because I needed a book written by a Hawaiian and I wanted one written by an Indigenous Hawaiian specifically. She tossed me a few titles and I grabbed this one because it seemed the most up my alley: a family saga that begins with a seven-year-old falling off a boat in the middle of the ocean and being actually rescued and delivered back to his parents by the sharks. Then he touches a friend at a Fourth of July party who has blown part of his hand off with a firecracker and heals the wound.

And then you think you have an idea where the book is going, and there’s a big twist in the middle and you were wrong, and then you think you know where the book is going, and you’re probably still wrong, because ultimately this book is about what a weight The Future can be, when you think you’re being raised to be one thing and then you’re not that thing anymore, and it’s also about what happens to a family when all of their futures get taken away from them at once. The book follows four characters– the mom and the three kids– in a sort of first-person rotating chapters sort of thing, and the father of the family gets to be the POV character a time or two but not very often. There’s a lot of Hawaiian vocabulary sprinkled into the book, but not so much that it’s a problem for people who aren’t familiar with the language or the islands themselves, which I’ve never visited. It’s about the same amount as the Diné you see sprinkled throughout Rebecca Roanhorse’s Sixth World books, with the advantage that Hawaiian is a lot easier to parse and read for a native English speaker than Diné is. Washburn’s prose is lovely throughout, and the voices of the main characters are distinct enough that after a while you can pick out who’s talking from just a couple of paragraphs, which is definitely something you want in a book structured this way.

I’ll talk about this more in a few days when I do the June update for #readaroundtheworld, but this book is exactly what I was looking for when I started this project. There’s not really anything I’m learning or being exposed to when I read a book by someone from Michigan or New York or Texas, y’know? I have a pretty good idea of what those places are like already. Hawai’i is a little different, for obvious reasons, and this is definitely an author and a book I wouldn’t have come across were I not deliberately looking for it. I probably missed some cultural nuances here and there, of course, but the book was still plenty accessible for all that. If you’re looking for something new on your reading list, definitely check it out.

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Luther M. Siler

Teacher, writer of words, and local curmudgeon. Enthusiastically profane. Occasionally hostile.