Matthew Kaopio’s Written in the Sky is one of those rare books told from a kid’s perspective that’s not for kids. It’s raw and real, and certainly true to the experiences of many homeless kids in Hawaii, but it’s not one I’d give to a kid the age of ‘Ikauikalani, the abandoned Hawaiian kid at the center of the story. The language is coarse, the action violent, and the circumstances bleak. But for anyone high school or older, it’s a must read in the cannon of Pacific Literature.
Written in the Sky tells the story of ‘Ikauikalani, a middle grader who is adrift after the death of his grandmother. Through ‘Ikaui’s daily experiences, we see firsthand the effects of mental illness, drug abuse, bullying, and dispossession faced by the homeless living in Ala Moana Park. We see how ‘Ikaui struggles to eat, keep clean, and fill his days. There’s real physical danger of death as well as a fear of spiritual death if ‘Ikaui’s swept up by social services. But in the middle of a survive or die situation, there are remarkable moments of grace that allow ‘Ikaui to thrive, to choose to be someone who helps instead of hordes, and to ultimately create a family—an ‘ohana in the truest sense—where there were once only strangers in Ala Moana Park. The kindness of college students, fast food workers, guardian angels, and others allow ‘Ikaui to discover who he is, connect his amazing gifts with his ancestral past, and heal generational wounds.
It’s a book that can be read on many levels. To say it’s about kindness triumphing over evil dilutes what I think is the real message at the heart of the story. I loved the way traditional Hawaiian culture and values were woven into the narrative.
For me, the one jarring element was the Indian guest lecturer who gives ‘Ikaui insight into his gifts. While I appreciate the pan-world, indigenous peoples, we-are-all-one perspective, I would’ve have liked to have seen this insight come from a kupuna. It’s a small rub in a beautifully paced novel and doesn’t really distract from the overall story. However, it’s an odd choice that rings true, and I wonder if the author based some of this novel on his own experiences or on people he knows.
Written in the Sky by Matthew Kaopio is available in paperback and eBook from Amazon. If you love Hawaii and Hawaiian literature, this is an exceptional book.