Image of children sitting on the floor in a classroom, raising their arms.

Review: Island Below the Star

Gareth B. Matthews

Review of Island Below the Star by James Rumford (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1998).  Originally published in Thinking: The Journal of Philosophy for Children 17(1-2): 3.

Long ago, on a tiny island in the South Pacific, there lived five brothers who loved adventure. The first, Hoku, loved the sun, the moon, and especially the stars. The second, Na’ale, loved the sea. The third, ‘Opua, loved clouds. The fourth, Makani, loved the wind, and the fifth, tiny Manu, loved birds.

One night Hoku told his brothers there was an island below a certain bright star, which he pointed out to them. “Let us sail to it,” he proposed. No one had ever gone so far before.

Tiny Manu was the first to accept the proposal. But his brothers laughed and said such a dangerous trip would be out of the question for such a small boy.

The next morning Manu watched his brothers prepare for the great trip. Hoku dried fruit for them to eat. Na’ale made fishhooks and readied the harpoons. ‘Opua gathered rain­ water. Makani repaired the sails. After several weeks of preparation, they were ready. The last night they had a great celebration and then set sail just before dawn.

Little Manu had sneaked aboard the canoe during the celebration. He was not discovered until sunset of the first sailing day. After pretending to throw Manu overboard, the brothers accepted him and put him to work.

Everyone had a job. Manu caught fish. Hoku used the sun, moon, and the bright star to navigate. Na’ale used the rhythms of the ocean waves to keep the canoe on course when clouds covered “the heavenly map.” ‘Opua watched the clouds to predict storms. Mankani “disentangled the knotted wind.”

After several weeks at sail, Mankani noticed a strange rush of warm air. The waves grew. A strange cloud appeared. Fearing rough weather, the brothers tied a safety rope to Manu. For five days and nights they struggled to survive the monstrous storm.

After the storm passed the brothers realized that they had been blown off course. But Manu caught sight of a bird – high, very high, in the sky. Manu alone was able to see the direction in which the bird was flying. Hoku steered the canoe in what Manu told him was the direction of the bird’s flight.

That night the brothers saw the bright star again. No one could sleep. The next morning they saw the island, and a quiet bay for the canoe. At sunset they went ashore. That night they gave thanks for their safe journey to the island below the bright star.

This simple, but gripping, story of how Polynesian explorers discovered the Hawaiian Islands more than 1,500 years -ago is told in language worthy of a poet and illustrated in watercolors of artistic merit. It is a story of how a child can see something important that the much more experienced adults around him have missed.

The fact that children see their environment with fresh eyes is part of what makes doing philosophy with children so rewarding – rewarding both for children and adults. My grandson, Johnny, visiting last week from California, commented, while eating sunflower seeds, that he was “murdering” the seeds. His provocative comment introduced a discussion of whether all killing was murdering and whether seeds were alive anyway, or only in some state of potential animation. Johnny’s father soon joined in the discussion, which soon became quite fascinating (and postponed bedtime for a good half hour).

The Island-below-the-Star is also a story about origins, in this case, the human discovery and settlement of Hawaii. But unlike the story of Christopher Columbus discovering the New World, no greed or disdain for the native population tarnishes this tale. It is a story of adventure that includes respect for the gifts of each person in the canoe and for their individual love and respect for some aspect of the natural world.

Should hearing or reading this story make a Hawaiian proud to be Hawaiian? We shouldn’t just give a glib ‘Yes’ answer to that question, but take the time, whether at home or in school, to think about what we have a right to be proud of, and why.

We may have a right to be proud of our accomplishments, say, getting a good grade on a paper, or making a basket in basketball. But being a native Hawaiian, or Minnesotan, or New Yorker, or American, is not really an accomplishment. Does anyone have a right to be proud of one of those things?

Sartre, in Being and Nothingness, tells us that although, in a way, where we are born is obviously a pure accident, something “absurd,” there is a way in which I choose being born, and even where I am born. I may affirm, or ignore, celebrate, or denigrate, my place of birth. But above all, I have to interpret what it means for me to call myself Hawaiian, or Californian, or Southern, or Yankee. So, although I would be in bad faith to simply deny what Sartre calls the “facticity” of my birth, I have to decide what it means for me to claim a place of birth. If I can succeed in doing that in a non-chauvinistic way, I may have a right to say I am proud to be what I am.

In any case, reading and lingering over the illustrations of The-Island-Below-the-Star might well be, for Hawaiians, a good first step toward being justifiably proud to be Hawaiian.