Reading the stories of the late Rell Sunn, I couldn’t help but think of the e.e. cummings poem "Buffalo Bill." After describing, in just a few lines, the greatness of the man, the poem ends with a line of anger and loss: "How do you like your blue-eyed boy, Mr. Death?"
Maybe those who knew and loved Sunn felt that way, or maybe they were able to celebrate her amazing life and accept her death in 1998 at the age of 47 after a 14-year battle with cancer. It’s clear they tried.
What her friend and former Honolulu Star-Bulletin writer Greg Ambrose has done comes close to that. Ambrose interviewed a number of Sunn’s friends and relatives, then compiled and organized their memories into this fine book, a true celebration of her aloha spirit.
Although she was much more than a great surfer, you can’t appreciate Sunn without delving into the surfing lifestyle. In Hawaii, where surfing was invented, there is a spiritual element to the sport you don’t usually find elsewhere — especially if the surfers are Hawaiian, and especially if it is Makaha Beach, where a tough group of local surfers watches over the waves.
Thriving in this environment is the beautiful Hawaiian-Chinese-haole girl with rich brown skin, long dark hair and a near-constant overpowering smile. Not only did she surf, but she could spearfish as well, diving deeper than most males, long hair flowing out around her. But more important was the effect Sunn had on people. Her spirit seemed to conquer all and make her universally loved by everyone who came into contact with her.
For those people who knew her and spent much time with her, Ambrose’s book will be an affirmation of her life. For those like me who never knew her, "Stories of Rell Sunn" will at first seem to be missing specifics and detail. I was annoyed at the lack of a chronological approach, and it wasn’t clear until about halfway through the book that she had died. But I think Ambrose intended it to be this way, to allow the reader to absorb information about her life by viewing it through a kaleidoscope of friends’ memories. And, indeed, by the end of the book, I knew all that I needed to:
Rell Sunn was a professional surfer, a spearfisherwoman, a radio personality, a world traveler as an ambassador of surfing, a teacher and a promoter of Hawaiian language and culture. And she was overwhelmingly loved.
Ambrose’s book is replete with beautiful photographs, though I wish there were more captions with the photos. A glossary of Hawaiian words used in the text also would have been helpful.
Guam-based writer Reilly Ridgell is author of the textbook "Pacific Nations and Territories" and "Bending to the Trade Winds: Stories of the Peace Corps Experience in Micronesia." His new novel is "Green Pearl Odyssey."