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The Pacific islands sure look different when viewed from Down Under than they do from up here in Hawaii. That makes "The Pacific Islands" a valuable effort both absolutely and relatively.
Absolutely, because it offers a coherent overview of the Pacific islands, of which there have been several over the years, but none quite like this. Douglas Oliver's two-volume "Oceania," published nearly two decades ago and based on a book he first published in 1942, can be regarded as an extended essay on the Pacific.
Brij Lal and Kate Fortune's "The Pacific Islands," if read through, has somewhat the same feel -- less elegantly put than Oliver's, because it is organized by topics -- but updated by several years, in which much has changed.
Though Hawaii's status in the Pacific is paramount in economics, culture and modernity, it occupies a relatively small portion of this encyclopedia.
There could be two reasons for this, both sensible.
One, unlike the small nations of the Pacific, just about anything you want to know about Hawaii (including a great deal that isn't so) is already available, so it makes sense to devote relatively more space to the lesser known areas.
Two, Lal and Fortune are scholars at the Australian National University, and their encyclopedia was financed by Australian foreign aid, so it follows that the South Pacific gets more attention. Micronesia is also skimped, relatively.
Scarcely one earthling in a thousand is a Pacific islander, and most of them are poor, isolated and, by any likely evolution of the world economy, foredoomed to remain so.
In an economic discussion, contributor John Overton writes "the prospects of successful competition by Pacific commodities on open world markets are poor indeed."
Similar instances of such beady-eyed caution are uncommon. The tone of "The Pacific Islands" is upbeat.
Too upbeat in the case of Fiji's fraught constitutional troubles. (Lal was personally involved in trying to sort these out. When this book was written, her optimism was not hopeless. Things have deteriorated.)
In fact, sometimes the articles have more the character of sermons than of reference reports. The outstanding example is the article on "Higher education for Pacific islanders" by 'I Futa Helu, a revered figure in Pacific islander education.
Throughout, one gets a close feel for how compressed the modern story of the islands is. The first colony to gain independence, Samoa, did so as recently as 1962. In places like Solomon Islands, modern institutions of various sorts did not arrive until the 1970s, '80s or even '90s.
It is a testimony to the strong cultural and kinship values of Pacific islanders -- a recurrent theme of Lal and Fortune's -- that the various communities have held up as well as they have. Seldom have so few had to put up with so much in such a short time.
The importance of organized sport also comes as something of a surprise. Here in Hawaii, we tend to receive more news of culture, one way or another, from the small island states. In this encyclopedia, sports receives nearly as much space. The "Hong Kong Sevens" (an islander variant of rugby) are a major event down south. Few in Hawaii, except immigrants, have ever heard of the sport.
That the book was written from an antipodean perspective shows up in occasionally amusing phrasing: National Football League games are called "matches," for example.
But there is also plenty of input from Hawaii. This is most noticeable on a particularly touchy subject, the constitutional history of Palau, which is related in three places. One article, by the well-known ax-grinder Stewart Firth, manages to be misleading by selective presentation without making statements that are factually incorrect. The same subject treated by Robert Kiste of the University of Hawaii is more balanced. The brief statement in the nation profile (by Kiste and Fortune) is so bland that the sizzle of this topic would be missed by the unprepared reader.
Another example of how perspective affects perception comes in the profile of Hawaii. The principal export earners for the state are listed as tourism, fishing, sugar and pineapple.
This was just reflex. Fishing is the principal -- in several cases, the only -- meaningful export of several of the two dozen or so island states. But it is trivial in Hawaii and will become even more trivial now that the best grounds, in the Northwestern Islands, are being put off limits, a new development since this book was published.
The Hawaii State Data Book is not helpful on fish exports, but total catch in state waters is valued at only a little over $50 million a year. Hawaii is a net seafood importer.
The encyclopedia comes with a CD-ROM which is searchable and has more maps than the printed text. It is supposed to be compatible with both Macs and PCs. It worked fine on a Mac, not at all on a PC with the same (Adobe) software.