Marshall Islands Legends and Stories

Bess Press, Honolulu 2003 Edited by Daniel A Klein II Cloth, 252 pages; US $22.95

By Laurence Marshall Carucci

In Marshall Islands: Legends and Stories, Daniel A Klein presents fifty tales from nineteen storytellers. They range from Koju Alfred's humorous tale of an Ailuk man who loses his pants while trying to capture a turtle, to Iban Edwin's classic story of the abused chiefly offspring Inedrel on Ebon. The focus is on sacred legends known throughout most of the Marshall Islands, and "mid-range" stories that, in varied forms, are familiar in one or perhaps several atolls. Klein, an educator and a central figure in the Honolulu Theater for Youth, does not analyze the tales, but recommends that readers give new life to the stories by using them as source material for their own performances.

Klein organizes the stories by atoll and author and gives brief backgrounds on each narrator, but only partly explains the circumstances in which he was "given" them. Readers can surmise that all were told between 1991, when Klein first visited the Marshall Islands, and about 2002. Storytellers from southern Ratak, and to a lesser extent southern Rälik, are well represented, but there are no stories from the northern Marshall Islands.

While Klein recognizes differences between how the stories are told and how he must inscribe them for his literate audience, the book has some serious shortcomings. I will use Iban Edwin's recounting of the story of [End Page 252] Inedrel as an example (226 ­232). As with other tales, Klein gives few clues as to how the storyteller and others might think about this story. He begins it with the introductory Marshallese phrase, "Etto im etto" (Long, long ago), suggesting that it is a tale of the ancient past. Yet it seems likely that "etto im etto" was added by Klein and does not refiect Iban's phraseology. This is important, since, combined with slippery translations, the reader is often unsure what a storyteller said and what was elided or added by Klein.

Like many Marshallese cosmogenic tales, Inedrel's movements leave traces in significant landforms. For local listeners, this marks the story as a founding myth. Briefly, after Inedrel's mother dies, his chiefly father and stepmother mistreat him, withholding food and care. One day, Inedrel's mother, an intermediary spirit/bird, kaer (black-naped tern), appears to save him. At first, Inedrel resists rescue from the living world, but as Inedrel's earthbound parents continue to mistreat him, on her third visit he allows his mother to fly away with him. Only his father's grasp, pulling him back to earth, keeps Inedrel from leaving. Inedrel's father heeds this message from the spirit world and begins to treat his son kindly, though the stepmother believes her husband's indulgence is wasted on the ungrateful boy. In spite of her objection, the chief attempts to cheer the boy by building him a diamond-shaped kite. Inedrel, dejected, shows no interest in the kite. A lagoon breeze lifts the kite aloft, dragging Inedrel to his feet as he grasps the string. As Inedrel runs along the beach, dancing with the kite, he is pulled into the air and willingly flies off with kaer, his mother. Hearing the echoes of their voices, the chief digs holes on the islet of Taka to find the source of the echoes, digging until he dies. These holes are still visible, and Dridri, a nearby islet, was formed where Inedrel's kite landed in the water.

Klein retells Iban's story with no attempt at analysis, yet analogies with other tales jump out at the reader. For example, Inedrel's encounters are similar to the granddaughter's suffering in Lene Langbol's version of "Lijebake," a classic tale presented earlier in the volume (4 ­7). Are the commonalities important? Unfortunately, Klein's readers lack the cultural knowledge of consultants like Iban or Lene, whose commentary would have been invaluable in helping us explore some of these intertextual spaces.

Ironically, while Klein encourages readers to participate as co-constructors of stories through reinterpretation, the translations are languid and unimaginative, disregarding the layers of significance embedded in Marshallese phrases and the unique contours of Marshallese metaphor. For example, when Inedrel is pulled skyward by kaer, the text reads, "the white bird and Inedrel floated out of the canoe"(229).Yet"fioating" is an unlikely translation for the skyward-tending movements of kaer and Inedrel. Given likely Marshallese verbs, Iban's Inedrel may have "fiown upward" out of the canoe, "moved upward, in a forward-facing direction" out of the canoe, or "hovered above" the canoe, but it is unlikely that he and his mother "floated out of the canoe." [End Page 253]

A second example occurs when Inedrel chants: "Limakak eo e kar ie nak to/ Roj aluluje nejio/ Tujeljel ion, takojeljel irok/ Lan ie jat ie tu, tujeljel." In translation, Klein has: "My kite is flying, leaping and playing with/ the breeze. Everyone sees it fly!/ Tumbling down, it snaps right back to the/ clouds. A strong wind blows, dancing it across/ the sky" (230). A closer, more multilayered translation might be: The kite, (it) was there being provisioned from above (upwind)/ They are observing that thing born to me (including children and toys)/ Winding downwind to the north, winding upwind toward the south./ A great storm there takes it to that place, coiling up downwind.

While Klein's translation reads smoothly in English, it obliterates alternative evocative renderings, including a critical embedded shift in speaker. Inedrel becomes the sole chanter, describing people watching his kite. In the multilayered translation, however, the speaker might be Inedrel or it might be his mother kaer, since "nejio" (my birth-class thing) refers both to Inedrel's kite and to kaer's son, Inedrel himself. At a more abstract level, nejio also encompasses the people nurtured by the chief, the father/caretaker of commoners--and the man who recognizes his responsibility for his son only when it is too late. Other significant differences might be noted, but the point is that the richness of reanimation that Klein urges on readers would have been greatly enhanced by richer ethnographic and linguistic context.

In the end, Klein seems stuck between an innovative vision of "story as performance," in which the full array of social activities surrounding the narrative are as important as the text itself, and a more archaic folkloric vision in which legends are collected for their own sake because they are thought to occupy a more sanctified category than everyday discourse.

This book is ideal for a middle or high school classroom, as a way to introduce students to fragments of Marshallese life. Despite its limitations, it is also valuable for researchers interested in the Marshall Islands or the wider Pacific. And it is an important resource for diMajel (people of the Marshall Islands), especially in an era when Marshallese identity is shifting from living life on a day-to-day basis, to a new consciousness in which Marshall Islanders find themselves far from home, both socially and physically, reflecting on the question of what it means to be Marshallese. Like many elders, Iban Edwin fears that the Marshallese way will disappear. In Klein's work, Iban sees a way to "hold onto our story" and "keep our culture and customs alive" (201). Indeed, for those with enough insight to accept Klein's plea for new performance, this text will provide the working materials out of which new forms of Marshallese culture will come to life.

April 1, 2005

The Contemporary Pacific:


Contemporary Pacific Vol. 17, No. 1 (2005)  Please note the following corrections to the Book Review Marshall Islands Legends and Stories, pp. 252–254. 

All instances of "Klein" should read "Kelin". The following pages contain this typographical error:

v, line 2  252, column 2, lines 3, 8, 19, 26, 32, and 39  253, column 1, lines 2, 10, and 15  253, column 2, lines 10, 18, and 24  254, column 1, lines 5, 20, 39, and 43  254, column 2, lines 28 and 32 

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