Tag Archives: Hawai’i

The Story Behind the Story: Kolea by Russell Cahill

Russell Cahill’s stories about his Hawaiian ancestors always fascinated me, because they all had a touch of history, a touch of mystery, and a touch of the fantastic. Kolea’s story has a familiar grounding: a child of royal blood with a destiny to fulfill…but his destiny is not one that the reader may expect. (I have to state at this point that I was the copy editor for this story, so I got to be an early observer about Kolea’s journey!) 

Kolea: A child, born of royal blood, is spirited away and raised in isolation. Pursued by an older brother, he escapes and travels to new worlds but cannot escape his fate.

It’s hard for me to believe in magic. I am a product of two cultures. Mom was descended from people of Europe who came to North America in the 1600s. Dad was a Native Hawaiian. One set of grandparents were pragmatic Yankees. The other grandparents were closely related to the land, the sea, and the plants and animals of Hawai’i. They were comfortable with the unseen and were quite superstitious. I ended up with a degree in science and an itch under the skin regarding the supernatural. Writing Kolea allowed me to scratch that itch.

If you want to get close to the ancient culture of Polynesia, there is no better place than Haleakala National Park on the island of Maui. Stories of shapechangers, ghosts, and spooky happenings are everywhere. I was fortunate to be assigned as superintendent of the park in 1970. I rode horseback or walked through that crater at least once a month for the four years of my tenure. 

There is good reason to believe the ancient ones believed the place to be a sacred location. There is a lava tube purported to be the repository of the umbilical cords cut from infants. I have seen the skeletal remains of ancient people hidden well back in the lava caves high on the mountain. And the workers I supervised refused to spend the night in areas of the back country that had disturbing Hawaiian spiritual significance. 

On one of my treks, I was climbing the steep trail at Halemau’u when I spotted a pueo, a Hawaiian owl, hunting on the steep slopes. It flew back and forth and didn’t seem to notice me as I stood quite still. The bird flew directly over me, perhaps five feet over me, and when it was just above me it recognized me and did a little hitch, continuing its flight. The magical part was that we stared into each other’s eyes for what seemed a long moment and I saw its eyes flecked with gold particles. I instantly felt calm, as if I had had a discussion with the owl. That evening I decided that although my father’s family aumakua (an animal god who is your relative and protector) was a shark, the owl had assigned itself to me. I went home that evening and began jotting notes about the pueo. 

A few years later I was living in a wall tent in rural Alaska. My little family and I were building a cabin in the forest at Gustavus. My wife and I had a disagreement about where the cabin should be sited. She liked one location and I, another. In the middle of one night, I got up to relieve myself and walked to the site I had chosen. As I prepared, a short-eared owl, the same species as the pueo, took off from a tall spruce tree and, with a lot of noise, swooped down from its perch and flew right above me, screaming its call. 

I took the nighttime event as a sign. The following day, we staked out the new cabin on the site my wife favored.

I began writing. Each evening after working on the construction of the cabin and having dinner, I sat by an oil lamp with a notebook and pencil and told the story of a boy, adopted by a mystical hula dancer and her blind warrior companion. Stories told about the battles between Maui and Hawai’i warriors were fresh in my mind from readings, and discussions with Hawaiian people in Hana, Kipahulu, and Kaupo. 

The idea of a canoe voyage to North America evolved from readings about the probability of prehistoric contact between Polynesians and the indigenous people of the Americas. The characters were formed from first-hand observations of people, and from the classic warring families found in all literature. I translated my own adventures in Alaska and the west coast of North America into plot points. After my sojourn in the Alaska Bush, I put the penciled draft in a file and set it aside as new work opportunities came up. 

The draft sat untouched for more than forty years. One day, one of my grandchildren was in need, and I gave her some money. She asked, “What can I do for you, Grandpa?” She was a good typist. I retrieved the notebook draft and said, “Put this in a Word file for me.” A couple of weeks later, the first draft came up on my computer screen and I went to work on a new draft. I pulled in research material on Hawaiian voyaging canoes and other materials and completed a first draft.

With no experience in publishing, I was flummoxed. But one sunny day, my wife and I were having lunch at our favorite little seafood place in Aberdeen, Washington, and I saw a note pinned on the wall for the South Bay Writers Group annual meeting to be held the following weekend at the Tokeland Hotel. A publisher would be there to hear pitches from authors. I drove south to Tokeland and reserved the last room available in Washington’s oldest hotel. “Do you mind the haunted room?” I was asked. “Of course not. I’m a writer,” I said.

On the following weekend, a representative of Booktrope, a cooperative publishing venture in Seattle at the time, listened to my pitch and agreed to publish Kolea. Along the way, I learned about editors, proofreaders, cover designers and marketing people. After the book was published, Booktrope folded. I was rescued by Gwen Gades, the publisher of Dragon Moon Books in Red Deer, Alberta. Gwen had designed the cover for Kolea. She agreed to continue to publish Kolea. And that, good reader, is the story behind the story.

Russell Cahill is a San Francisco–born child of a mixed-race family. His father was a Hawaiian seaman, his mother a descendant of Pilgrims. A former national park ranger in Yosemite, Alaska, Washington DC, and Hawai’i, Russell now writes from his home in a forest north of Olympia, Washington. His fascination with the native cultures of North America and Polynesia inspired him to write Kolea, a story of early Hawai’i and a voyage to North America.