By JOHN BURNETT
Tribune-Herald staff writer
Hawaii has long been a magnet for great writers. Herman Melville, Mark Twain, Robert Louis Stevenson and James Michener spring immediately to mind.
Author Tom Peek, who lives in Volcano, has lived a life worthy of Melville, Twain and Stevenson. The Minnesota native hitchhiked by boat through the Pacific, encountering a coup d’état in Fiji before settling here a quarter century ago. He’s been a mountain and astronomy guide on Mauna Kea and an eruption ranger, wild-land firefighter and exhibit writer at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, working closely with Hawaiian elders and cultural practitioners on both volcanoes.
Peek’s debut novel, “Daughters of Fire,” has been named a 2013 Benjamin Franklin Silver Finalist Award winner for Popular Fiction by the Independent Book Publishers Association, the largest not-for-profit trade group in the U.S. book industry. The book, with multiple plot lines that illuminate how the islands’ transformation into a tourist mecca and developers’ gold mine while native Hawaiians seek to reclaim their culture, protect sacred land, and step into the future with wisdom and aloha, has drawn comparison’s to Michener’s “Hawaii.”
“Some of the reviewers that you see in the Internet are getting that this book fills in a puka after Michener,” Peek said. “You know, there are only a few significant books that were published on the continent about Hawaii since Michener’s. It’s like the publishers think, ‘Oh, that’s done now. We know what Hawaii’s about.’ Since ‘Hawaii’ was published in 1959, before Hawaii became a state, some of the most significant developments has occurred, such as real estate development, tourism, military and the Hawaiian Renaissance and sovereignty movements. If you look at it, the first significant novel about Hawaii to be published by a national publisher since Michener’s was Kiana Davenport’s ‘Shark Dialogues’ — 35 years later.
“And all this time, Bamboo Ridge and Mutual Publishing and more are going on in Hawaii, vibrant works of literary and cultural importance, but it’s all regional. On the shelves of the mainland bookstores, there’s almost no significant fiction from or about Hawaii, a state in the union. We have a much richer literary tradition in Hawaii than anyone realizes.”
Peek, a now writing teacher whose Empowered by the Pen workshop are popular with both professional writers and journal hobbyists, found a kindred soul in Arnie Kotler of Maui’s Koa Books, whom Peek describes as “a little publisher with a big vision.”
“Arnie Kotler is a stickler for quality,” Peek said. “He wasn’t afraid to publish the book, even though it was honest. He wasn’t afraid to spend the extra money to hire John D. Dawson to create those beautiful images. He didn’t flinch at the fact that it was about 500 pages. Modern publishers, the big guys, are under enormous pressure from stockholders. Not only do they want to trim everything down and not spend any money on artwork and things like that, but they are also so terrorized by the market that they’re cautious, overly cautious.”
The award, which recognizes “excellence and innovation in publishing,” recognizes not only Peek’s story, but all that went into the book: the cover image “Pele, Goddess of Volcanoes” by the late artist Herb Kawainui Kane; Dawson’s pen-and-ink drawings; Lisa Carta’s design; and copy editing by Karen Seriguchi — as well as Kotler’s vision.
“’Daughters of Fire’ was a labor of love for everyone involved—the author, editors, artists, and designer,” Kotler said. “That’s something independent publishers can still do. We couldn’t be more delighted to get news of this Benjamin Franklin Silver Finalist Award.”
The book was one of three named as a silver finalist. The Gold Awards in each category will be announced at a gala at the Marriott Marquis in New York’s Times Square on May 29. The award-winning novel will also be featured at the Hawaii Book and Music Festival, the state’s premier literary event, May 18 and 19 in Honolulu. Peek will read from the book on May 18 from 4-5 p.m.
Peek said for his part, he strove to develop characters characters that “are not two-dimensional, who are capable of stupid things, even evil things, but also noble things,” and a portrait of Hawaii with an unflinching realism absent in tourist brochures.
“In the old days, it was demanded of literature, even pop literature — which is what mine is intended to be — you bring reality in in a way that’s real, and then what happens is that you get real resonance from people. And that’s why they keep reading,” he said.
Email John Burnett at email@example.com.