Book review: “Away from it All: A Portrait of Molokai 1970,” by Don Graydon
By David Lichtenstein
In 1969, San Francisco-based journalist Don Graydon sailed to Molokai with his wife Sharmen after she accepted a teaching job at Maunaloa Elementary School.
Graydon lived on Molokai for only nine months, but in that time the island changed him. “Molokai became part of me for a time,” he wrote.
While living here, Graydon published The Molokai Reporter and then went on to found the Maui Sun newspaper. On Molokai he documented his thoughts and observations and placed them in a manuscript that collected dust for more than four decades. When he finally decided to self publish in 2012, the journalist, now living in Washington State, made almost no changes to the original book.
“Away from it All: A Portrait of Molokai 1970,” offers an “unvarnished” snapshot of life on Molokai during an era of change as the island shifted from its base as a pineapple plantation to its modern incarnation. Much has changed on Molokai but much from 1970 is still recognizable.
The book is part travel guide, part history and part personal reflection on Molokai. Within each of the 10 chapters are descriptions, anecdotes and lots of black and white photos of the local characters and geography.
In 1970, Molokai still had its roots firmly planted as an agricultural island producing pineapples for Del Monte and Dole. Change was soon to come as the big companies pulled out of Molokai to find cheaper labor markets in Central America and Molokai began to consider tourism as a future industry.
The Molokai that Graydon describes in 1970 is a simple place made up primarily of Filipino and Hawaiian plantation workers and their families. While Molokai had about 2,000 fewer people it had a more lively social life that supported four movie theaters and two nightclubs.
Graydon begins by describing life in “Pineappletown,” the area around Maunaloa dedicated to the plantations. In discovering the rest of Molokai, Graydon expresses a certain wide-eyed amazement that brings his discoveries to life.
“At the other end of Molokai, at Halawa Valley, was the home of Johnny Kainoa and his hippies,” he writes. “In between, we found tourists and fishermen, hotels and hovels, immense pineapple fields and tiny taro patches, slick mainland speculators and illiterate Filipino pensioners, dusty, dry cattle ranges and tropical jungles, heathens and oh-so Christian Christians, non-practicing radicals and oh-so-American Americans, hot dogs and saimin, night clubs and luaus, American movies and cockfights. And these are the things this book is about.”
At the time, The Molokai Reporter, wrote about, “plans to bring hotels and big money to the west end, on lands of Molokai Ranch.” The section on Molokai Ranch talks about the history of the west end of the island and the development plans of people like Harrison Cooke and Ted Watson that never came to fruition. What ended up on the west end was what Graydon calls an “undernourished version” of what developers of his time were proposing.
Molokai Ranch has, of course, moved away from its tourism vision in 2008 when it closed the Ranch Lodge in Maunaloa as well as the 18-hole golf course in Kaluakoi. The old Sheraton had a brief life in the Kaluakoi area but has been shuttered for many years now.
Even before Molokai Ranch shut down, the population center of Molokai shifted from Maunaloa to Kaunakakai. Graydon reports that Maunaloa had a larger population than Kaunakakai in 1970.
The books describes the Kualapuu Reservoir project completed in 1969. At the time it was the biggest rubber-lined reservoir in the world. Apparently the reservoir was the final part of a $10 million Molokai irrigation project that had been in the works for 50 years.
Throughout the book, Graydon is not afraid to take off the hat of the objective journalist and tell us what he really feels. Regarding the reservoir he writes: “The big disappointment with the reservoir, as far as I’m concerned, is the fact that it is not being used for fishing or swimming or boating.”
In describing the movie theaters of Kaunakakai, Graydon writes, “Molokai boasts some of the oldest, saggiest, most weather-beaten movie houses in the nation … Bring mosquito repellent with you to the Kukoi; bring flea powder to the Kamoi.”
Moving east, Graydon offers some excellent detailed descriptions of the sights of the east end. In Halawa, one of the issues of the day was the conflict between some of the locals and the influx of hippies to the area. He speaks with Fred DeMello, the manager at Puu o Holu Ranch, about the hippy problem it one of the more amusing chapters on the book.
The things that make Molokai Molokai still haven’t changed. Graydon talks about the people, their love of the ‘aina and the colorful stories that make Molokai unique.
He shows great appreciation for the simple pleasures of life on Molokai — no traffic, uncrowded beaches and the diverse population. He also appreciates the welcoming attitude the locals show toward strangers.
But in places Graydon does not spare Molokai from his unflinching, critical eye. The people often lack imagination and will simply follow the status quo. He also wonders about the island’s unquestioning patriotism.
“Along with this lack of imagination comes a rather prevalent sort of unthinking Americanism; a rote patriotism that doesn’t leave room for many questions.”
Keep in mind, when Graydon wrote this it was at the height of the Vietnam War when many people in the country were beginning to question the country’s presence there.
Although I have lived on Molokai for almost six years, Graydon’s experiences strangely mirror my own. He came here to be a journalist on a short-lived newspaper while I came to be editor of The Molokai Times, another local newspaper with a relatively short lifespan (four years). Like Graydon, my wife is also an educator at a public school here.
Also like Graydon, Molokai has certainly become a part of me. It has given me a different perspective on life and its priorities. While much has changed, the island’s ability to affect the inner life of its residents has not.
The important, underlying Hawaiian values that make Molokai have not changed. Respect for the kupuna, the ‘aina and the values of ‘ohana are still central to life here. Perhaps the subtitle could be, “The more things change the more they stay the same.”
Graydon only printed a limited number of books and they are not for sale. A copy was sent to the Molokai Public Library. I would also be willing to lend out my copy to anyone interested. Email me at email@example.com if you would like to borrow this book.