The Book of Puka-Puka by Robert Dean Frisbie

4 out of 5 stars

A copy of this was provided free of charge from the publisher in return for an honest review.

Robert Dean Frisbie was born in Cleveland at the end of the 19th Century and grew up as any American lad did in those days. He served with the U.S. Army during World War I, but after he was discharged the medical advice was for him to go so somewhere warm as if he stayed in the USA then the next winter would kill him. This was 1920 and he needed to get somewhere warm, and the pacific islands seemed to be a perfect combination.

He ended up in Tahiti for a while before moving the island of Puka-Puka in 1924 to set up a trading post.  This is a sun-kissed coral atoll about four miles by two in the Pacific pretty remote from anywhere else. He had only been there a few months and he had learnt the language and fallen head over heels in love with the island and the culture. The locals take to him and call him Ropati. He begins to learn its ancient ways and the self-sufficiency that they had developed to survive in the little piece of paradise.

Even though the island was visited by missionaries and there was a church that most of the population attended, they still carried on with life as they knew it, sleeping, fishing, making love and playing games. It was a life that Frisbie took to, he married one of the local ladies and had five children with her and relaxed into his little bit of paradise on earth.

The culture of the people of Puka-Puka was not advanced, but it was highly developed. Frisbie fully embraced it too, settling into the life there, catching turtles with them and partaking in the various rituals of life there. It is a fascinating book, I liked the poems from the people there that preface each chapter, some are traditional ones and others were created by an individual for a particular event, like the visit of a supply ship. Frisbie’s prose is very readable, he has a knack of portraying the way of life there in such a way that you can feel the warmth of the sun lifting of the page, hear the gentle sound of the sea lapping the beaches or share the terror of being battered by a typhoon. Highly recommended and if this part of the globe interests you then I can also recommend A Pattern of Islands by Arthur Grimble.

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  1. Liz Dexter

    This does sound a good one; I do love a South Seas adventure from the past (handily, as I’ll be in mid-century Tahiti myself at the start of June!)

    • Paul

      It sounds utterly idyllic and well away from the political morons at the moment

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