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Fierce Heart By Stuart Holmes Coleman

May 19, 2009
Sky Barnhart

During his nine years as park keeper, Buffalo and his family had lived in the upstairs apartment of the bathhouse at Makaha. Their home was like a community center, where wayward surfers and Hawaiians could always come for a meal, conversation, and shelter. The kids had grown up at the beach, and the beach was their backyard. The world’s best surfers had passed through their home, including regulars like Greg Noll, who used to sleep over after partying with Buffalo late into the night.

Eight years after the publication of Eddie Would Go, author Stuart Holmes Coleman has again courageously delved into recent Hawaiian history with a look at the “Wild Westside” of O‘ahu: Makaha.

Fierce Heart which recently hit No.2 on the Honolulu Advertiser bestseller list, is a collection of stories and bios of the Makaha community; namely about pure Native Hawaiian waterman Buffalo Keaulana and his family, captivating waterwoman Rell Sunn, and beloved singer and songwriter Israel Kamakawiwo‘ole. Through extensive interviews with the Keaulanas and dozens of Makaha locals of the time period, Coleman weaves together a narrative rounded out with doses of Hawaiian history, from statehood to the Hawaiian Renaissance to current social issues of drugs and development.

It’s an impressive effort, full of information and anecdotes—but I wonder if Makaha residents would agree that Coleman has really captured the spirit of the place. While Coleman’s simple, journalistic style worked well for the linear movement and gripping storyline of Eddie Would Go, sometimes it feels a bit thin in Fierce Heart. Maybe the book just tries to cover too much, leading to oversimplifications like: “But unlike the violent clashes between the so-called cowboys and Indians in the popular Wild West movies of the time, most of these [Southern California] transplants eventually embraced the indigenous culture and bonded with the locals over their love of surfing and Hawaiian culture.”

Still, Fierce Heart is an enjoyable read, packed with tales about wild times and practical jokes. Some of the best moments include insights into the first voyage of the Hokule‘a, on which Buffalo was a crewmember; harrowing lifeguarding rescues and shark encounters; big wave stories and surf contests like the Buffalo Big Board Classic; background about Brian Keaulana’s pioneering ocean safety techniques; and meaningful tidbits from the lives of “the Queen of Makaha” and Braddah Iz.

The attractive hardcover book includes a handful of color photos of well-known Makaha residents, but lacking are photos of the area itself. In the introduction, Coleman describes how “in between the jagged cliffs of the Wai‘anae Mountains and the tranquil calm of the Pacific, there are burnt-out cars by the side of the road and makeshift camps of homeless Hawaiians in the beach parks.” A photo of the scene would’ve been worth a thousand words.

Fortunately, Coleman’s real strength is in talking to people, and he does plenty of that in Fierce Heart, allowing their words to create colorful and lasting pictures.

Coleman will sign copies of his book at Borders in Kahului on Saturday, May 23, at 4 p.m., and at Barnes & Noble in Lahaina on Sunday, May 24, at 2 p.m.

4 out of 5 Shakas

Fierce Heart
By Stuart Holmes Coleman
St. Martin’s Press, 2009
Hardcover, $24.95
ISBN-13: 978-0-312-38451-7



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