‘Papala Skies’ is a tour de force: meticulously researched, intricately planned, and beautifully written. I was reminded of something William Wordsworth said once: “I yield to none in love of my art. I therefore labour at it with reverence, affection and industry.” This is a most carefully crafted book, its characters and their struggles serving the author’s worthy purposes, its language replete with resonating imagery and apposite metaphor.
Stephen Geez possesses impressively wide-ranging knowledge in a number of fields, all of which add credence to his tale; but in a way for me, suspension of disbelief was never an issue. I found myself enjoying the story almost on a quasi-allegorical level: experiencing the characters almost as personifications of particular human virtues or vices and applauding the fundamental message that whatever the circumstances, we have the power as adults to take control of our own lives and make fundamental decisions about the values we choose to live by. On this level, ‘unlikelihood’ in the ‘real’ world doesn’t matter. Each of our realities is to a large extent a figment of our own imagination, and realising that is ultimately empowering.
In order to give his characters depth and authenticity, Stephen Geez clearly goes much further than most authors in his study of their cultures, languages, beliefs, locations and history. He also delves where necessary into the technical specifications of any particular expertise claimed by any of them – such as wheelchair design, scuba-diving or the proper maintenance of endangered eco-systems. For ‘Papala Skies’, he learned quite a bit of the Hawaiian language, including pidgin versions spoken in the rural areas. Such attention to detail shows great respect for his readers and certainly provided this one with a richly-rewarding reading experience.
In ‘Papala Skies’ the author explores how people can live most of their lives in one place but call another “home.” He shows how people form an impression of the world they occupy at any one time by associating elements of place with what is familiar from elsewhere. He reveals the differences between relationships within biological families and the attachments we form with those we love. He examines how empathy can change us when faced with the opportunity to give back something another has lost, even at our own expense. Then he adds insights about how guilt and grief can infuse how we value our very selves.
Rochelle is an over-achieving young woman who has long blamed herself for her mother’s death. Now she needs to find her place in the world, even as family obligations pull her toward the very life and people she rejected as a child. In rural Hawaii, she deals with her ersatz family’s beliefs in ancient superstitions while she struggles to cope with the realities of greed and grief. From discovering simple truths in the depths of a coral lagoon to braving deadly eruptions while secreting bodies in subterranean lava tubes, she finds herself living a life she never planned.
It is narrated entirely from her point-of-view, with the early chapters alternating between key events in her teen years and the very adult challenges that pull her in new directions after college. The descriptions reflect her penchant for imagining the places she knows or hopes to see. It is very much a character story; but as the mysteries unfold, it becomes a fast-paced thriller where the very survival of Rochelle and the people she loves are in jeopardy.
‘Papala Skies’ is a more nuanced and sophisticated story than you would expect to find within a basic mainstream genre. The author completed an M.A. in Education & Community Development from the University of Michigan Rackham Graduate School. He also possesses a Double B.A. in English Language & Literature and Psychology from University of Michigan. Writing in a variety of contexts played an important role throughout his professional life, and now that he has retired, he has the opportunity to concentrate all that expertise and experience into beautifully-crafted novels. I recommend that you profit from all that wit and wisdom by reading his books.
This review is already too long, but I have to end it with a tantalizing glimpse of the exquisite writing:
“She raced down the street, chasing wisps of fog that squirmed under the harsh scrutiny of street lights.”
“’Ah,’ the old crone thought, her eyes suddenly appearing before Rochelle, points of clarity twinkling mischievously in the mist.”
“Whistling incessantly, a tiny, red bird refereed impatiently from his perch on the sill.”
“These cliffs looked different, too, jagged and plain, the faces gone, blind masks of indifference.”
Can you feel the heart of the story beating strongly beneath these words? If so, then ‘Papala Skies’ is for you.