Thursday, October 30, 2014

Searching for lost history : the forgotten Mango Tree Camp

From Hawaii State Archives
When I set out to write my current project about a young boy living in a steampunk alternate history of Maui in the 1930's, my initial question had been, "What if the Hawaiian Monarchy had never fallen?" This was the question that drove my setting, and fueled my 9-year-old son's imaginative character building as he helped me cultivate the story.

I wanted a mango tree to be the anchor to the theme of the novel, a story about perseverance, self-assurance, and growth. And it was modeled after a tree that lived in my grandmother's back yard, next to a house built by my great grand-uncles in an old plantation town. And so, a mango tree was born in the pages of my outlined draft and it's branches encompassed the characters.

But after I drew out the bones of the preliminary draft, I began to do more in-depth research in order to add more realism and believability into my otherwise unreal world. If you don't know your history, you can't make a believable story. I read about the Monarchy of Hawaii, researched the events that preceded and followed the overthrow, and searched for stories about the people who lived during the booming plantation years.

It was during some online searching that I came across a pdf document with a series of maps showing population growth and settlement patterns. When I looked closer at one of the maps, a 1933 and 2004 population comparison, a little dot of population was placed near what is the "Happy Valley" area of Wailuku. It was labeled "Mango Tree Camp."
From Appendix A of the 2006 General Plan 2030

I thought, "Oh, wow, how awesome is this? I could make this place the setting for the main character's home!" and I went in search of information on this camp. But as it turned out, the only place it exists is on this one population map. I searched for it online. I had family who had worked the plantations, and while many are no longer with us, I asked if anyone remembered Mango Tree Camp being mentioned in the stories our parents and grandparents passed down. I asked friends if any of them knew old-timers who might remember. No one did.

Before I knew it, my story was no longer just about a place with a mango tree. It was about a place long forgotten, its story lost to our generation. People lived at this camp and worked for a plantation, whether it was for the sugar industry, the pineapple industry, and maybe even in the macadamia nut fields that grew up from the ashes of a failed sugar industry. Where did those people go? Where are their families now?

From Maui Tropical Plantation's Bailey House Museum images
Mango Tree Camp existed. The people that lived and worked there existed. Even if I don't know anything about the place and its residents, I know there was a story worth telling. I am still searching for those voices to tell me the story. Whether I find them or not, I will make sure that they are remembered. I may have to make up their lives, but they will be remembered as real people, in a real place; lost but not forgotten.

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