Talking Story

Children live in unseen spaces created by contradiction. Freckled is a raw, compelling, and ultimately hopeful memoir of growing up haole on Kauai where the idyllic freedom to surf, climb trees, and play Barbies runs counterpoint to a reality of homelessness, food insecurity, prejudice, violence, and the need be the adult when parents can’t. At times a celebration of the best within each of us as well as a witness of both human frailty and resilience, T.W. Neal’s memoir is a must-read for those Hawaiian and Hawaiian at heart.

As outrageous as of some of the events may seem to outsiders, I know firsthand of the truth she speaks. Hawaii in the sixties, seventies, and eighties was undergoing profound cultural change. A lot of anger and pain was being released against the real abuses of power and theft of land in previous generations. Unfortunately, a lot of that anger got poured onto the heads of haole kids, kids with fair skin, light eyes, and blonde or red hair.

Too frequently the very adults charged with protecting all kids—teachers, coaches, school officials—turned a blind eye to systemic bullying. In my case, adults were often complicit and encouraged the abuse. Kill Haole Day at Kahului Elementary was every Friday. Teachers taped 18 inch squares on the floor of the classroom and required me to stay in them all day. I didn’t even have a desk like the other kids. At recess, I escaped to the library until the librarian made me go to the playground. No other kids, just me. It’s not an exaggeration to say people would go to jail now for what happened to me in elementary school.

Neal’s experiences only differed from mine in that her parents never assumed she would fit in. Like Neal, salvation for me came in the form of private schools that encouraged me to grow academically. Ironically, I fit in better at The Kamehameha Schools—a private school for native Hawaiians—than any public school I went to.

There’s a lot of cognitive dissonance in knowing your family farmed taro for generations on land that was stolen by missionary descendants and tended by immigrants from Asia, while the descendants of those immigrants are kicking your ‘okole daily and calling you haole crap—basically, foreign trash. People who claim racial prejudice and elitism are only white issues have a very narrow and limited view of the world.

But that’s another blog post.

People tell me how lucky I was to have grown up in Hawaii. And they’re not wrong. In her memoir, Neal weaves a lei of a typical island childhood complete with surfing, exploring rain forests, hula lessons, and walking the reef. It’s those wonderful moments of adventure that serve as counterpoint to the grimmer challenges of her parents’ mental illnesses and chemical dependency that as a child she had to recognize, mitigate, and manage.

At its core, Freckled by T.W. Neal is a story of hope and a narrative of the triumphant nature of a beautiful, intelligent young girl who didn’t listen to the voices and circumstances that told her she was anything less than all she could be. It’s a universal journey, a coming of age story wrapped in ti leaves. Readers may never look at Hawaii the same way again. It’s an important work that I predict will be a touchstone in Pacific literature for generations to come.

Freckled is available in paperback and eBook from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other purveyors of fine books. You can connect with T.W. Neal on her blog:

9 Responses to Book Review: Freckled by T.W. Neal

  • I am so glad someone finally wrote this story. I grew up on Oahu the same years as Toby, 1965-1983, as a Hapa Haole child, with a white mother and Hawaiian-Chinese dad. Because I was light skinned, I was brutally bullied by peers and teachers in Kailua and Manoa. I remember my sixth grade teacher, Mr. Aoki, making me sit alone so no one would have to smell my “haole stink”. He would constantly ridicule me, and allow the other students to line up and spit on me or punch me on kill haole days. I was constantly being challenged to fights, and would be chased home and beat up by entire groups of kids. Adults would hear the threats in class and do nothing.

    My dad was a surfer and he raised me alone when my mother left us, when I was ten. We would go surfing and he would have to directly tell the MEN in the ocean line up that I was his hapa child…if not, they would purposely ram their boards into mine and knock me off the waves. Brutality came from both children and adults, and I never felt safe amongst my own people. This racism affected me deeply and made me run to the “mainland” as soon as I graduated high school.

    I still feel a strong connection to the place that is Hawai’i, and to the cultural roots I was given by my Hawaiian tutu (grandmother) and my part Hawaiian father. The place and its beauty raised me, but the people tore me apart. I became a teacher to be the kind of adult for my students that I needed, but never found. I also raised my own children away from the place I love so much, because they are more haole than me and I feared for their safety. People say it is different now and I hope that is true. The Hawaii I grew up in was filled with hate and violence. The adults who taught in the public schools I attended should have been arrested for the abuse they heaped on white or light skinned mixed children. And the students who brutalized their lighter peers only reflected the views of their parents. I can only hope they grew into decent adults and did not pass on the hate.
    This story needs to be told. Racism runs both ways, and mixed race kids like me got it from two sides. Hawaii has not always been the land of Aloha.

    • Thanks for your comments. They mirror many of my own experiences as a haole-looking part-Hawaiian kid. I’m your age, too, and grew up on Maui and Oahu. What I’ve found when I’ve talked with some of my childhood tormentors as adults is that they honestly don’t remember what they did. When I push and give specifics, they might kind of remember, but their memories are disconnected from emotion. (Kill Haole Day? Fridays? Oh, yeah, I remember, but it was no big deal. Everybody did it. I mean, it wasn’t like you had to go to the doctor or anything…) They don’t consider themselves racists today, so how could they have acted that way when they were younger? I think we kids in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s paid the price for what others did in the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s. And yeah, some teachers would go to jail for what they did to us in Elementary school now. Fo’real.

  • Interested to read your story Toby!
    I too am a member of the “I survived Kill A Haole day club” at Waimea Elementary & Intermediate on the Big Island. We moved to Manoa Valley when I was 3 & then I did the rest of my Elementary years (1st-6th) on the Big Island. I was a big kid for my age, so instead of my classmates bullying me their older siblings would do it, especially on the school bus. Fun times!
    Thanks for sharing your story!

  • I devoured the first five chapters of “Freckled” and look forward to reading the rest. I spent the entire summer of 1952 in Manoa Valley, Oahu with the author’s mom-to-be Suzan, my beloved cousin, when I was 12 and she was 9. My mother was in the process of getting a divorce from my father, a weekend alcoholic. The summer provided wonderful memories for me, going to the local activity center with Sue and Garth, where we learned traditional Hawaiian crafts of making bracelets from seeds we gathered; our teachers were Hawaiian. We also learned to hula, and at the end of the summer, performed with Hawaiian children at the park by Waikiki Beach. I remember tourists taking pictures of us in our traditional holoku dresses. I was tan as an acorn, my hair bleached by the same warm sun, but with blue eyes and European features, locals would easily spot me as haole. I didn’t experience prejudice against haoles, outsiders, perhaps because it was just 7 years after the end of WWII, and Hawaii had not yet been granted statehood, which was greatly desired.

    Toby’s experience as a child, told as a child, with a child’s brutal honesty is a heart-wrenching, fascinating look at poverty, drug abuse, survival skills and resiliency.

  • Toby’s Mom here… I moved to Hawaii in 1951… 6 yrs after the war. My Dad, a scientist got a job at UH … my first school, Kuhio El, on Oahu, had admitted non-Hawaiians the year before. My parents were not prejudiced. I had no idea that anyone in my class was any different from me. My Dad was an alcoholic. I have no doubt what so ever that I would not be alive today, had I not had my years growing up as a ‘child of Hawaii’. I already had no self esteem from the family illness… At age 8, finally, in Hawaii, I felt accepted in a profound way that I cannot explain. There were so many cultural differences in Hawaii, that my odd adaptive behaviors, and own mental illnesses were just absorbed. It took years before I realized that skin tone was what seemed to matter. By then, I was at home in my larger dysfunctional family: The eclectic Hawaiian Community. When I married a CA surfer, I told him that we needed to raise our kids in Hawaii. I have no doubt that had we not returned to the Islands, and especially to the remoteness of Hanalei Kauai, that we would not have survived our own isms. I am forever grateful to the Hanalei Community for treating us like we were odd, strange, but normal enough. Just like what I grew up with…. I have only read an early draft of Toby’s book, am looking forward to reading the final version. She was a delight to raise, so bright and vital… I cannot re-write History, nor mitigate her version… I can only rejoice that she survived also, found her voice, and is happily using it… Thank you Hanalei… what a special community you are…

  • I’m awed by your words, Lehua. Mahalo. I shake in my slippahs at the taboos I’ve broken in telling my truth. That I am not alone in this experience of systemic hassment, means so much.

    • Darkness cannot exist when we shine a light onto it. In your book you describe a moment when a now adult apologizes for tormenting you when you were children and how as a family therapist you became instrumental in helping him heal relationships in his own ‘ohana. That was profoundly cathartic for me. I like to think that maybe, just maybe, people can have new experiences that allow them to grow and enough self-introspection to realize what they did wasn’t pono. Mostly I just tell myself that living well–in kindness and grace–is the best proof of how very wrong they were about kids like us. Speaking your truth shines a light and gives me hope that more darkness can be banished.

      • Your review is a poignant piece about being haole and the unique prejudice we feel among a place and people we we love I am writing a memoir about my life as a haole teacher on Lana’i.

    • You are very brave by breaking all the taboos by writing of your childhood. I am not very far into your book, but already am thoroughly engrossed. It brings back memories of a gentler time in Hawai’i, before the influx of tourism and outsiders invading all our sacred, secret places. I am transported back to the days of incense, granola and patchouli (and hashish…!). The 50s and 60s were my childhood years here, on the Big Island and Maui.

      Your descriptions of the natural surroundings–the air, the jungle, the feel of wet grass and mud, the ocean and sand–are all wonderful and right on!

      Looking forward to reading more! Mahalo!

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