Talking Story With Jill Engledow About Her New Novel ‘The Island Decides’ And What Maui Was Like During The Hippie Days

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It’s hard to believe now, but 40-plus years ago Maui went to war over hippies. The long-haired idealists had been coming to the island since 1967 at least, but at first, locals had welcomed them. By 1970, this welcome had considerably soured.

“These are parasites who deride our society, contribute nothing to it, but use the services provided by our ‘grubby’ tax dollars to further indolent, squalid existence,” The Maui News editorialized around 1970.

Imagine a world of hepatitis and dysentery outbreaks in Haiku, legal maneuvering, grandstanding County Councilmembers and free love in Makena, and you have both a fascinating time in island history and the setting for a great novel. That novel, which came out in November, is called The Island Decides. Written by Jill Engledow (and published by her Maui Island Press), the novel is a very readable and enjoyable look at a time very different from our own.

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Last week I sat down with Engledow to talk about the book and her own experiences with the hippies of Maui:

MAUITIME: Until this book, you’ve just written nonfiction. Why write a novel?

JILL ENGLEDOW: I started this book 20 years ago. I always wanted to write a novel. So I took a sabbatical from The Maui News–I wanted to be in an academic setting for a while. I chose the University of Arkansas creative writing program in Fayetteville. There I learned techniques; they didn’t really want me to write the novel, because you can’t write a novel in a semester.

I started it, but that semester I mostly wrote back story. And I kept working on it–I’d work on it for an hour after work. It got to a point where I thought I was finished in 2005. I sent it to a friend, and got a good critique. But at the time I was trying to make a living and didn’t have the time to work on it. Things got better, and I pulled it out about a year ago and started rewriting it. I was adding stuff right up to the end.

MT: The book is set in 1971. Why did you do that?

JE: I was here at that time. This is an era that has not been recorded, but it was an important time on Maui. Hippies were all over the island. The locals were welcoming them–well, some were, some not. Some of the people were not deserving to be welcome, because they were trespassing, stealing fruit. I had all this material, based on my being here at that time.

MT: The main character, a young mother named Carrie Ann, thinks about men in a way that today seems quite submissive and deferential.

JE: People were brought up that way. A woman was to find her fulfillment in helping a man to succeed.

MT: Part of the book takes place in an area of Maui called “Guava Gulch,” which is overgrown with hippies. That was based on a real place, which I believe was called the Pineapple Patch…

JE: Banana Patch. I went down there a few times, but wasn’t there when it was quarantined [during a hepatitis outbreak].*

I lived in a big communal household in Haiku. In Makena, the hippies were living on the beach with no water, no toilets. You didn’t have to wear clothes, because no one cared. But the police eventually had to come in because there was no way to keep it clean. It got pretty disgusting.

Living on the land was our ideal, but we didn’t really know how to do it.

MT: In the novel, Carrie Ann comes to Maui suddenly and completely ignorant of Hawaii. How does that compare with your own introduction to the islands?

JE: I came to Maui in 1968. I went to intermediate school on the Big Island, but I’d never been to Maui before. I was at loose ends in Honolulu, and didn’t know what I wanted to do. I thought I could go to Maui, be a cocktail waitress in Lahaina and have time to write. But there weren’t any cocktail waitress jobs! I had a plan to hitchhike to Hana, but I ended up meeting the guy I eventually married, and never made it to Hana.

MT: You started writing, but for the Maui Sun, the alt paper at that time. What was that like?

JE: It was great. Don Graydon was the editor. He was the kind of editor you love, the kind who makes writers better. We were in this old building [in Wailuku]. We were idealistic people who really dragged The Maui News into the 20th century. With investigative stories, but also with design–Cynthia Conrad did the layout, and she also did the layout of my book Haleakala and the cover design of this novel. The paper had a very different look than the old fashioned Maui News.

I think my first story was published in 1976. I came from a newspaper family, so I knew what to do. I kept asking them for a job, but they didn’t have any. Finally I brought them a story, Dan liked it, and he printed it. Then later he called me and asked if I wanted to do a story on a beekeeper.

MT: How was the Sun different from The Maui News, where you eventually went to work for 18 years?

JE: It wasn’t a score like working at The Maui News. David Hoff**, who I think was managing editor then, put it on a growth curve. It was a great time to be at the paper. I lived in Makawao, but I worked on the Lahaina and health beats. They gave me a lot of freedom–I wrote about spousal abuse, alcoholism. And I was there for the birth of so many important nonprofits like Women Helping Women and Aloha House. They just let me write about these things. Of course, we all did things like cover the County Council and rewrite news releases.

MT: Let’s get back to the time of the novel. How was Maui better in 1971?

JE: It was much more rural, peaceful. I often think of how the people who lived through those plantation days won’t be here much longer. It was so different, and you don’t find that anymore. The local culture was still here then, and that was the culture of the islands. Tourism was not the culture of the islands. E komo mai, welcoming people–all of that, which now seems like a welcoming ploy, was real.

MT: Could the influx of hippies that you describe in your story have contributed to ending that?

JE: That may be true. People were climbing over fences to get someone’s water because “God provided the water.” There was some of that, but it was also tourism and the influx of people. When the guys started Ka‘anapali, people were so excited. People from around the world would be coming here. But it was so overwhelming. It changed everything.

MT: How so?

JE: It’s much harder to live here now without a good salary. And housing pressure–in 1968, we rented a three-bedroom house on 12 acres for $75 a month. Can’t do that now. People whose families have lived here for generations are squeezed out by newcomers with money.

There’s also pressure on natural resources. Acres of green empty land now are filled with houses–often mini-mansions. And the water that allowed South Maui to develop comes from under the West Maui mountains, where the aquifer is salting up from overuse.

And the Makena coastline–it was nothing there but kiawe, sand and waves. No fancy houses on the shore. I miss that!

MT: I bet. Can you think of any ways in which life is better now than it was back then?

JE: There’s more to do now. There used to be very little in the way of entertainment or cultural enrichment. Now you can’t possibly do all there is to do. And there’s more opportunity. Kids with any ambition beyond plantation work used to routinely leave the island after high school. Now it’s possible to find a job here after college.

And there’s access to the world now–Internet, television. It’s so much easier to get what you need in material terms. I don’t remember if it’s still in the book or if I took it out, but there was a part where Johnny goes to the Mercantile and he can’t find something.

MT: I don’t recall that part.

JE: Well, it’s because they kept selling out of it, so the owner decided they just wouldn’t stock it anymore. People were so laid back.

MT: You dedicated the novel to Joelle Davis Rudin. Who is she?

JE: My foster daughter, who sadly died in November of cancer. She came to Maui the way the child in this book came to Maui. She was only 46.

MT: Very sorry to hear that. What do you hope readers will take away from your novel?

JE: An understanding of how Maui used to be and how it’s changed. And an understanding of how women used to think.

* This story originally said that Engledow said she was at the Banana Patch during the quarantine. In fact, she said she had not been there at that time.

** This story originally misidentified Hoff as The Maui News publisher when Engledow was a reporter.