In this memoir, a woman explores the gifts and costs of being raised by free-spirited parents on the fringes of paradise.
Red-haired, freckled Neal was born in La Jolla, California, but her first memories were of playing naked in the surf in the 1960s on the beaches of Hawaii, where her hippie parents moved to escape convention. Even as a child, she learned to read the signs of her father’s bad moods that could lead to frightening rages. As she grew up on the remote island of Kauai, her life was governed by his temper and the repercussions of her parents’ lifestyle. Surrounded by like-minded drifters and surfers, they lived off the land, sometimes going hungry except for the fruit and fish they foraged. Through poverty, the birth of two girls, and a miscarriage, Neal’s parents remained beguiled by the lush landscape, fleeing their problems in a cloud of alcohol and pakalolo, the Hawaiian name for marijuana. But life was complicated for a girl navigating a world she loved yet where she remained an outsider, “haole crap,” to many locals who viewed the influx of white hippies with mistrust. Yo-yoing between Hawaii and California throughout her youth, she was forced to rely on her inner resources to develop a sense of identity, family, and home. The author, who has written books under the name Toby Neal (Wired Courage, 2018, etc.), has crafted a deeply personal coming-of-age narrative that is also an engrossing history of a bygone era. She paints a pre-tourist portrait of rural Kauai and the hippie surfer community that thrived there, buoyed by its beliefs in Eastern religion and the transcendental power of drugs. She skillfully captures the evolving perspective of growing up, from the naïve immediacy of childhood to the angry acuity of adolescence to the gentler perceptions of maturity. The scenic and cultural setting of Kauai filters through the text in vividly descriptive passages as well as the frequent use of Hawaiian words. Missing is any voice of the locals, although the author tries to remedy this with a foreword by John Wehrheim that discusses Kauai’s past. But being a white outsider is a major part of Neal’s story, so perhaps it is unavoidable that her narrative remains unbalanced.
An affecting and riveting chronicle of a singular childhood that evokes the contradictions of hippie utopian ideals in an unspoiled Hawaiian landscape long since lost.