I can’t even begin to tell you how good this book is, but let’s see how I go.
Sea People: The Puzzle of Polynesia is, as author Christina Thompson admits in the prologue, as “much a story about what happened as a story about what we know.”
In charting the story of Polynesian settlement in the Pacific, Thompson also charts the way Europeans have collected knowledge about the region, and have made meaning from it. Some of the European observers are well known – James Cook, Joseph Banks, Thor Heyerdahl – others are well-known only in their field. But Thompson brings them all vividly to life, along with their biases, errors, racism, judgements, and occasional sparks of genius and insight. She leads the reader gently through arcane but relevant science (who knew radiocarbon dating was so interesting?) and lovingly describes the islands and sea roads of this vast, and strangely culturally homogenous, region.
Best of all, Thompson introduces us to new people. Mua, the gifted navigator whose skills and intellectual concepts were quite alien to Western ways of thinking. Nainoa, who in 1980 sailed in a traditional vessel from Hawaii to Tahiti and in so doing inspired a huge wave of cultural pride. And my favourite, Tupaia, a Tahitian ‘Knowledge Man’ who sailed with Cook to New Zealand and beyond.
Thompson, a former editor of Meanjin and the current editor of the Harvard Review, is married to a Maori man called Seven. Her love for him, and for the people of Polynesia to whom he is distantly but irrevocably related, is clear. Thompson’s love of writing is just as clear. Sea People is as readable and enjoyable as the best fiction (but so much better, because… well, because some of love us just love non-fiction the best!)
Beautifully written. Compellingly told. You don’t have to care about Polynesian history to enjoy this book, although you certainly will by the time you’re done.
Want more? Christina Thompson’s website is worth a visit. You’ll find out how many prizes Sea People won (a lot) and there are links to essays that Thompson has written for various, prestigious online magazines. And yes, I disappeared down that delightful rabbit hole for quite a while.
Thompson’s first book, a memoir called Come on Shore and We Will Kill and Eat You All, has just rocketed to the top of my TBR pile.