Austin Aslan was inspired to write this story while living on the big island of Hawaii to complete his masters degree in tropical ecology, with his wife (who is also an ecologist) and their two kids. Living on an island, so geographically isolated and so unique in both environment and culture, sparked his imagination: what would happen if Hawaii were cut off from the rest of the world during a global disaster. So many of our visions of the end of the world focus on big metropolitan areas, and this book gives a chilling take on what could happen to people caught on the highly-populated and tourist-heavy islands that rely on importing food and supplies. Most tourists visit places like Hawaii to escape from the rest of the world, but what would happen if it were totally cut off?
Leilani, the book's protagonist, is a new runner in the stream of young heroines that have appeared in recent young adult novels. Brave, confident and smart- she is bound to inspire a new wave of young girls to not only act courageously in the face of a challenge, but to learn about and understand the environment that surrounds them. I’ve met Aslan’s young daughter and can see how she would have inspired this character- and how the touching relationship between Leilani and her father mirrors the author’s real-world family.
From my perspective as a scientist, Aslan has done a great job of weaving the unique and incredible ecology of the Hawaiian islands into the story without being overbearing or dry. Much of the science is interlaced with ideas of faith and life beyond earth that I sometimes found to be a little distracting, but which I can imagine young readers in particular would identify with. Even where the known science crosses into science-fiction, the plot and ideas are both convincing and sensational.
Take this dialogue between Leilani and her father about Honu (sea turtle) evolution, for example, which Aslan says was partly inspired by an essay he once read attributed to philosophy professor Dr. Daniel C. Dennett:
“Honu” Dad says. “Aren’t they church enough? They kind of represent the true nature of God. For me.”
Dad smiles. “Did you know that some turtle species cross the entire ocean to lay their eggs? Why would they do that?”
“They didn’t always. When the supercontinent of Gondwanaland was just breaking apart, the turtles would simply swim across a narrow straight, lay their eggs, and head back home. Over the next hundred-or-so million years, the continents drifted apart, about an inch a year. The turtles went about their business, doing what they used to, what their parents used to do, each generation unaware of the imperceptible change. Now they cross oceans. And they’ll be here still, following their ancient paths, inch by new inch, long after we’re gone.”
Leilani’s father is a tropical ecologist, and I found his way of conceptualizing the disaster around them to be exactly what I imagine most scientists would do. In fact, it dips into the realm of the hysterically- accurate vocabulary of the Shit Academics Say twitter feed:
"Kind of ironic, isn't it? I'm angry. But it's my very nature as a scientist that keeps me from rushing to convenient conclusions".
If you want to read more thorough literary reviews or plot overviews, check out Kirkus, School Library Journal, GoodReads, YA Books Central, and Cli-Fi Books.
My advice: grab a copy of this book and enjoy the exciting story. If you find yourself reading it on a tropical island somewhere, try not to think too much about how it could play out if your island paradise were suddenly cut off from the rest of the world.