This book may resonate with clinicians as it explores the complex process of healing—the rewards of its successes, as well as the toll of its limitation.
“Sharks in the Time of Saviors,” the debut novel of Kawai Strong Washburn, follows the story of the working-class native Hawai’ian Flores family. The three children, Dean, Nainoa, and Kaui, all excel: Dean on the basketball court and Kaui in the classroom. Yet it is Nainoa who is his parents’ favorite child and seems truly exceptional. As a toddler he falls overboard on a tour boat, and appears lost when a shiver of sharks surround him. Instead of attacking, the sharks bring him gently back to his parents. As a boy, he discovers he has special healing powers, the ability to touch people and supernaturally restore destroyed limbs and treat hopeless diseases. His gift, however, is imperfect, and Nainoa and the family soon discover the accompanying burdens of doubt, isolation, fractured relationships, and the inability to meet expectations.
This book is driven by an exploration of the grief that accompanies the miraculous. Dean and Kaui struggle with the grief of not being the chosen child despite their own impressive accomplishments. Nainoa cannot be the healing savior he wants and his parents expect him to become. Even the land of Hawai’i is a character in the book, with the image of a luxury vacation destination belied by the author’s unflinching description of the reality of homelessness, addiction, and environmental degradation wrecked by haoles (foreigners, especially white people). No gift comes without a wound.
Clinicians may appreciate the book’s complex dissection of what it means to heal someone and the toll the limits of healing takes on a healer. Nainoa, it turns out, is not the savior his community hopes he is. The tragedies that unfurl because of his gift draw the entire family—and the reader—into questions of human connection, identity, mortality, and what sacrifices we are willing to make to see miracles happen.
This piece expresses the views solely of the author. It does not necessarily represent the views of any organization, including Johns Hopkins Medicine.