10 Great Books about Micronesia

…with a special emphasis on the Outer Islands. List compiled by the Habele Outer Island Education Fund.

Willard Price’s 1944 Japan’s Islands of Mystery is a great starting point. By his own account, he and his wife were the only westerners to visit the islands of Micronesia during the Japanese period of control from 1914 until the Second World War. Not only does he give exciting accounts of the islands he toured, but his descriptions of Japanese rule also provide an interesting baseline for comparison with the later America Naval Occupation (1945-1951) and the U.S. administered Trust Territory Period (1952-1986). In fact, Price went back to Micronesia after the World War Two and wrote America’s Paradise Lost (1966) in order to ask tough questions about what he saw as an American failure to adequately promote political and economic development.

William H. Alkire’s An Introduction to the People and Cultures of Micronesia (2nd ed., 1976) and his Coral Islanders (1978) were informed equally by Alkire’s formal academic training as an anthropologist, and years of his own personal experience living in the Pacific. Coral Islanders in particular, gives a very detailed account of the atolls between Chuuk Lagoon and Yap proper, with a special emphasis on how this remote Outer Island ecology produced a complex and distinct culture. Bates and Abbott’s Coral Island (1958) is more specifically focused on the Atoll of Ifaluk, and is written for a less academic audience, but also provides a great up-close sketch of Outer Island culture.

Dealing with Micronesia more broadly -and asking tough questions about America’s involvement and techniques there- are: Robert Trumbull’s 1959 Paradise in Trust; E. J. Kahn’s 1965 A Reporter in Micronesia; and David Nevin’s 1977 The American Touch in Micronesia. These books frame questions about the nature of development practices in the Pacific within a background of prolonged cultural isolation, limited natural resources, and the vast scale and physical isolation of the tiny islands. Nevin in particular deals with the awkwardness of idealizing the past while driving toward an ambiguous future. He writes about the emerging K-12 educational system and wonders how a top-down U.S. bureaucratic public school design will meet either local or western needs.

In the late 1980s, the American government-administered UN Trust Territory came to an end. Rather than remaining united as they debated degrees of sovereignty, different island groups pursued individual negotiations with the U.S. This has resulted in a web of republics, federations, and commonwealths in the Pacific, all with varying degrees of formal association with the U.S.

The Edge of Paradise: America in Micronesia (1993) is an account of this process. P.F. Kulge had been a Peace Corps Volunteer in Palau during the late 1960s and returned to his country of service two decades later. It is a very personal account that centers on his relationship with key Palauns, but it is written in a way that provides generalizable insights about the region as a whole. Rounding out our list is Jesuit Father Francis Hezel’s The New Shape of Old Island Cultures: A Half Century of Social Change in Micronesia (2001). Hezel’s decades of firsthand experience in Micronesia and the vast collection of written resources collected at the Micronesian Seminar (which he founded) come together beautifully. As Edward Lowe explains in a review:

As an anchor for the analysis of change, the book argues that Micronesian social organization and social practices were, for most of its known history, organized around one's access to and control over productive land and sea resources. Generally, a person secured his or her rights to access these resources by cultivating membership to a particular kin group. The growth of the cash economy in the decades following the Second World War allowed nuclear families to derive their livelihoods from outside the land-kin system, resulting in an uncoupling of land and kinship as foundations of everyday social relations.

Hezel’s arguments are strong, specific, and well crafted. The book is an excellent read.

For more information on the Outer Islands of Micronesia, and to learn how YOU can help promote an expansion of educational opportunity and accomplishment there, visit www.habele.org.