Aloha Rodeo

Author: David Wolman and Julian Smith
Published: 2019

Mood: If you feel like you’ve heard every story of the places and people in the Old West and are desperate for something fresh but you’re pretty sure nothing can actually surprise you.

“Hawaiians were still grappling with the injustice of annexation and the cultural onslaught wrought by explorers bringing cattle, missionaries bearing Bibles, and foreign politicians exercising the breathtaking arrogance of imperialism. Ikua and his cousins hadn’t set out to become a symbol for Hawaiian strength and identity in the new country, but that is exactly what they became.” 

Aloha Rodeo is an exciting blend of action-packed storytelling and meticulous journalism. The result is a powerful history lesson that reads like the best kind of Western. 

Okay, I tapped all 20+ years of my writerly skills to craft that intro because it sounds like the perfect quote for the back of the book, and I live in a fantasy world where people read these reviews and give a shit about my opinion on Westerns. This book is also so awesome that I sincerely hope the authors DO read my review, which is a new experience for me because all of the other authors I recently reviewed are deceased.

But I’m not messing around – Aloha Rodeo is absolutely enthralling. I can’t remember the last time I was SO F*CKING JAZZED about a book. I even used the word ‘jazzed’!   

I discovered Aloha Rodeo on my continuing mission, to explore Western movies and books about literally anyone but white dudes

  • Fun Fact: I’ve been hunting down Western movies from several sub-genres that focus on POC including Chicano (Mexican-American, see The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez), Australian (see Sweet Country), and Ramen Westerns (Sukiyaki Western Django, which I’ve bought but not yet watched)

There are plenty of brilliant Westerns with talented white actors and directors. There are also heaps of Western novels telling white stories about the Wild West, showcasing its white cowboy heroes and usually vilifying everyone else. I’m a white girl, but even though I love many of those horseback chases and gunfights, I’ve always craved more viewpoints. 

If you love fast-paced action AND learning about the real history of cowboy culture, you have to read this book. 

photo of the Aloha Rodeo book leaning against a Western saddle

Aloha Rodeo is the story of three Hawaiian paniolo – the native ropers who have been rounding up wild cattle over deadly terrain since the 1830s – and their journey to rodeo fame. But it’s even more about the period before and after Hawaii was abruptly annexed, and went from monarchy to United States territory. 

And it’s ALSO a great detailing of certain aspects of the late 1800s, the most romanticized period of U.S. history. Specifically, Buffalo Bill and the birth of Cheyenne Frontier Days, aka the World’s Greatest Rodeo.

If you’re already like “shit, that’s a lot of things” – it is. But these stories are intrinsic to one another. I thought the book was going to be all about the men and the rodeo, but only the final part covers the rodeo events. And you wouldn’t fully appreciate the outcome if you didn’t understand all of the working parts in play.

White people brought cattle to Hawaii as gifts. King Kamehameha I understood their long-term value, and forbade cattle slaughter to let their numbers grow. But that got out of hand, and led to the ‘Great Cattle Menace’ with over 20,000 wild ‘bullocks’ destroying Hawaiian land.

First there were bullock hunters, stalking the islands with guns. Then King Kamehameha III reached out to California (not yet a state), and brought in vaqueros to teach the local hunters how to rope. The paniolo were born.

That’s where Aloha Rodeo reads like the best Western fiction. The authors shift easily into creative storytelling to deliver the roping and bronco busting scenes in vivid real-time detail. There’s one particularly tense chapter set in 1892, which deals with a horrific roping accident and Ikua Purdy galloping all night to find a doctor to save Eben Low’s life. That and other scenes were written SO F*CKING WELL that I couldn’t put it down and go to sleep.

The paniolo were ‘cowboying’ before there was officially such a thing as an American cowboy. They had to deal with the usual challenges (mountains, weather, supplies, dangerous animals), but also hazards unique to Hawaii like jagged lava rock, hog holes, and driving their cattle INTO THE SURF to swim out to boats and be hauled up. 

I’m honestly ashamed that I’ve been a Western fan for so long without knowing of these badass cowboys. 

illustration of a fancy moustache

Much of the rest of Aloha Rodeo is educating you on a history that’s extremely difficult to hear. Until the late 1800s, Hawaiian land wasn’t something you could own. Parcels were distributed to chiefs to manage, but all resources were communal… until foreign influence pressured Kamehameha III to put it up for sale. 

Of course it was wealthy white people who snapped up thousands of acres, while the native Hawaiians were displaced from farms that had been worked by their families for generations. Then, to top it all off, a group that included white businessmen and the U.S. military staged a coup and overthrew the last ruler, Queen Lili’uokalani.

I can’t get over how well-crafted Aloha Rodeo turned out to be. The co-authors are journalists, which lends well to the level of research required to tell such a complex story. But being a journalist doesn’t mean you’re a good creative writer who can capture a reader’s attention for the duration of an entire book. 

Fortunately for us, these two can really f*cking write. 

The only challenge I found with Aloha Rodeo was that the narrative sometimes jumps back and forth between decades. There were times when I got lost on which year we were talking about, and had to flip back a few pages to grasp that we’d gone from the 1830s to the ‘50s then back to the ‘30s. 

But that’s kind of a testament to the story – I was so engaged that I NEEDED to confirm exactly what I’d just read. I wanted to be able to accurately recall those details when I made my boyfriend’s family suffer a lengthy dinner table diatribe on my newfound fascination with paniolo.

This book is insanely good. It’s my favourite book I’ve read this year, possibly last year as well. It won the NPR Best Book of the Year, and was a finalist for the Oregon Book Awards and Pacific Northwest Book Award. And it’s got photos! 

Do yourself a favour and read it. Then do all of your friends a favour and rave about it over beers.