After our last class discussion about “School For Hawaiian Girls,” I started to consider what everyone was saying about the significance of Punani’s singing. While I understand why some of you see the singing as foreshadowing events in the book, I want to argue that with deeper analysis you may find that the songs actually hold more meaning. On the inside flap of the novel, the book is described as “in the green depth of memory where the dead whisper to the living.”
If you recall, nowhere in the book do we actually see or hear about spirits. But in the scene from the book where Moani and Punani return to the school and Moani hears footsteps, I’m convinced that someone else was in the building with them. Punani has a fascination with the piano that coincidentally Lydie once played and “heard mu-sic” while they were at the school (McMillen 21). Moani also hears footsteps and thinks that Punani is upstairs with her when she is actually outside. What if, by touching the piano, Punani comes in contact with Lydie’s spirit or knowledge of her story and communicated it with her family by singing throughout the rest of the book? I believe that Punani’s singing is Lydie’s way of “whisper[ing her story] to the living,” so that her family can remember her again. Similar to the other themes that are introduced to readers about Hawaii, I feel as if this assumption would be appropriate because Hawaii is such a spiritual place.
Last class, Priya brought to our attention the way in which McMillen constantly underlines the fact that Punani is “retarted.” This is because McMillen wants us to pay close attention to the abilities that Punani’s mental state allows her that no one else is able to pick up on. As someone else mentioned in class, it is said that children are more open to the idea of spirits. We have all noticed that Punani is very aware of things that are happening around her but is unable to express them the way in which people around her are able to. Aside from one instance, where she sings the wrong lyrics to “Waltzing Matilda,” Punani’s singing begins after Moani and Pu’s visit to the school.
If you analyze the meaning of the songs that she sings, there is much more thought put into the song choices than one might realize. As you may have noticed, each song is triggered by conversations that Punani is listening to. The song that Punani sings when talking about the piano “ya, da, da, boom, de, ay. It happened one sweet day. There was a boy next door, he got me on the floor,” is a direct reference to Lydie’s murder (McMillen 47). It comes into the text at the point where Moani first learns about Lydie’s death and while the family is talking about the school and the piano. A coincidence?
Another example is the song “Aloha Oe,” which was written by Queen Lili’uokalani as she watched two lovers saying goodbye in the moonlight, after Hawaii was annexed by the US. This song seems to have been chosen because of the situation in which it was written and because it is usually sung when saying goodbye to departed loved ones. It is triggered by Sam’s joking around about death of Moani’s clients and it is very fitting to the situation between Sam and Lydie.
As oblivious as Punani seems, she may actually know more than we think!