Camp ToB 2020

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Week Three: Sharks in the Time of Saviors

This week we move over to our second book for June: Kawai Strong Washburn’s debut novel, Sharks in the Time of Saviors.

Welcome to Camp ToB 2020, the summer reading program from the Tournament of Books. This summer, we’re reading six works of fiction from 2020—two books per month, two weeks per book—that the ToB fandom chose by popular vote. Each week we read half of one novel and talk it out on Wednesdays, joined in the booth by a member of the Commentariat—our Activity Leaders, in Camp parlance—to discuss our progress. At the close of each month you’ll decide which of the two books advances to our end-of-summer championship, where you’ll pick one of our three finalists to win an automatic berth in the 2021 Tournament of Books.

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Rosecrans Baldwin: After two weeks of great discussion, we leave N.K. Jemisin’s The City We Became and move on to Kawai Strong Washburn’s debut novel, Sharks in the Time of Saviors, a story about the Flores family in Hawai’i, whose younger son, Nainoa, falls off a boat when he’s seven, only to wind up being rescued by a shark—which propels a bunch of other events, both ordinary and supernatural, that strengthen and torment the family.

This week we’re joined by Activity Leader Beth Aronson. Beth, can you introduce yourself to everyone at Camp and give us a sense of where you’re coming from?

Beth Aronson: Yes, for the past seven years I have taught (mostly) graduate courses in the psychology department at a university in Texas. As part of that job, I have run a free clinic where my students treat members of the community. Before the pandemic, I commuted 1,000 miles a week back and forth from Houston to my office. That means my sanity was completely dependent on my audiobook supply. But my husband just accepted a job in New Hampshire, so my future is sort of a cliffhanger at the moment! Maybe there will be books with pages and pretty covers in the years to come.

For a while I owned a pet-sitting business—such a great thing, I just got too busy with a baby and a full-time private practice to keep running it. I am a nature lover and pretty into board games. I was raised Episcopalian, studied Eastern religions in college, was briefly married to an ex-Jesuit, and am now married to a rabbi. I have a 12-year-old daughter who hopes someday to be an actress, wears fedoras a lot, and sings songs from Six: The Musical while playing Minecraft.

Rosecrans: Tell us a little about yourself as a reader. What do you like?

Beth: I have been an avid reader my whole life, and when I was in private practice, I had a pretty active book blog. I read mostly fiction—lit fic, classics, world lit, historical fiction, some fantasy and science fiction—but also memoirs, history, and some selective nonfiction related to psychology. My parents were both librarians, so I guess this was pretty much guaranteed to be my fate. I tried NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) and wrote a big chunk of a novel, but that experience taught me I am really a reader rather than a writer.

Rosecrans: Terrific, and thank you for joining us this week. So, talk about your first impressions of the book. Where were your feelings after, say, 50 pages?

Beth: I have always described the islands of Hawai'i as magical. It seems fitting that from the first, this book pulled at me with elements of that same magic. The book opens with a scene that sets up the magical realism at its core, but also introduces evocative imagery and the strong characterization that forms its heart. Washburn creates lush images without being wordy. Little details do the work so that nothing feels heavy-handed—the sound of a basketball in one scene transported me—really small details!

Rosecrans: I couldn’t agree more. Sounds, emotions, smells, insults—everything is specific, lived-in, really felt.

Beth: I loved the portrayal of the marriage between Nainoa’s parents in the early scenes. The first chapter also sets up the strong pull of the environment of Hawai'i in the book. I’ve been there several times, and this book put me back in visceral ways from very early on. The use of dialect is another way that the tone is set right off the bat; it’s there in the text and it is beautifully done in the audiobook. I am a little boggled that this is the author’s first novel.

Rosecrans: Each chapter of the book gets a different narrator from the Flores family—parents Malia and Augie, Nainoa (Noa), brother Dean, sister Kaui. Are you gravitating toward some more than others?

Beth: The rotation of narrators worked well to set up distinctive perspectives and personalities. I loved Kaui’s spunk, and felt the pain as Noa and Dean are seen as special by their parents and she feels a part of the background no matter how brilliant she is. I was drawn to her very early. Dean, on the other hand, was harder to like. While I could empathize with his feeling eclipsed by “shark boy,” at times he felt like a bit of a self-involved bully. Or, at other times, he was struggling to find his way but frequently choosing a flawed compass to navigate by. But it was never black and white—there were moments when he showed compassion, and you could see his connections to his siblings and his desires to help himself and his family.

Rosecrans: The sibling relationships really are drawn so well, both when we see and feel them from a narrator’s point of view, or when one sibling observes the battle or love between two others. Especially in light of Noa’s gift, so to speak, however we want to characterize it.

Beth: It is clear from early on that Noa’s specialness is not going to be a simple thing—the pain of his chosenness and the ways he feels driven to understand something that is beyond his grasp were poignant even from a few chapters in. For me, the character that felt least well-developed was the dad. I liked the glimpses I got of him, but of all the family members, I feel I know him least well. And I feel like this was a specific choice of the author’s. Maybe as I read through this second time I will be clearer about Augie.


Sharks in the Time of Saviors by Kawai Strong Washburn

In 1995 Kailua-Kona, Hawai‘i, seven-year-old Nainoa Flores falls overboard into the Pacific Ocean. When a shiver of sharks appears in the water, everyone fears the worst. But Noa is gingerly delivered to his mother in the jaws of a shark, marking his story the stuff of legends. Noa’s family hails his rescue as a sign of the favor of ancient Hawaiian gods—a belief that appears reinforced by Noa’s puzzling new abilities. Now Noa, working as a paramedic in gritty Oregon neighborhoods, attempts to fathom his expanding abilities; in Washington, his older brother Dean hurtles into the world of elite college athletics; and in California, risk-addicted younger sister Kaui navigates unforgiving academic and wilderness landscapes to forge her independence from the family’s legacy.

Book description excerpted from publisher’s summary and edited for length.


Rosecrans: Yeah, I’m reading for the second time too. I basically swallowed it whole—shark-like?—when it first came out, and it’s just as good the second time through.

Beth: I swallowed it whole, too! One thing I’m curious about: I realize my strongest connections in addition to Noa were to the women in the novel, and I’m wondering how much that is related to my being a woman. Did you feel the same strong connections to the female leads (my daughter’s theater world is creeping in)? Did you have a stronger response to the dad, or a more positive response to Dean than I did?

Rosecrans: I had strong connections to all of them. On a personal level, I was there for Dean’s struggles as a first child and older brother; Kaui’s complex understanding of her identity, plus her connection to rock climbing, her love relationships; Noa’s solitude and searching. I loved the sexiness of Malia and Augie’s relationship, and I identified with Malia’s anxiety, Augie’s torment. Perhaps because Augie gets so little time in the spotlight, I connected less, but not for a lack of interest. And that definitely changes in the second half.

One thing I find interesting is to read this book next to The City We Became. The setting plays such an important role in both books—these mythic locations that are also living, breathing pieces of today’s United States. Beth, you said you’ve been to Hawai'i. I went for the first time last winter, friends were living on the north shore of Kauai, and Washburn brings me right back—the voices, the flowers, the class disparities, the conflicts, all the history, the majesty, or just the food.

Beth: I love Hawai'i and fantasize a lot about living there, despite my shame about my haole status (I dread being that person). I have been there three times, never with much money to spend—the first time to run a charity race, the second time for a professional conference (when I had literally $20 dollars to get through several days in Waikiki; thankfully I had already paid for the hotel and airport transport!), and a third time staying in hostels on the north shore of Oahu, in Kauai, and on the Big Island. During the third trip I actually ended up camping on the beach a couple of nights in Kauai. It is absolutely the most beautiful place I have ever been, and the contrasts of the Big Island are mind boggling—I went from walking on hot lava to star-gazing atop a mountain in snow, to seeing cacti in desert-like terrain, all separated by less distance than that which separates my home and my office. And yes, this book transported me right back.

Rosecrans: Noa’s chosen-ness, his magical healing powers, are the story’s center, but not always its main concern. Which storylines resonated most for you?

Beth: In a way, I think the theme underlying all the storylines is the establishment of identity, the struggle to understand connection to family and to these powerful islands and the culture that they all share. It plays out differently for each family member, but it is really the key challenge for everyone.

I said before I felt connected to Kaui from the start—I never lost that connection. Her brilliance, her difficulty finding her place, and the intimacy she had such trouble achieving with people in her world were all very powerful for me. Dean, Noa, and Kaui all had struggles with existential loneliness, at some level, but they played out differently. I just stopped rereading at the end of the second section, and that is feeling very powerful for me at this moment in the book.

Rosecrans: Talk to me about Malia, your connection with her.

Beth: I loved Malia in the first chapter and then really resonated with the challenges she faced as a wife and mom; I am curious whether this would have been as true for me 15 years ago when I was a single professional. You could feel her strong love for her children and the desire to give them opportunities she didn’t get, and then you also see her self-doubt as she thinks about the role she played in how events unfolded for her children.

And I did really like Nainoa and felt the struggle he had in making sense of his “gift.” It was so clear that while he might have had the ability to somehow heal others, he was so driven and so cut off from people by the specialness that he spent much of the book physically and emotionally wounded.

Rosecrans: Right. I know it’s one of the things I was banging my head against as a reader, to see Noa struggle—but we’ll get into that more next week. And then there’s Dean.

Beth: Dean is a tricky one, really hard to like sometimes, but also a complex person who was making his way using means that made sense to him. I am liking him more the second time through, although he’ll never be my favorite. I loved that these characters were multidimensional and that even when they did things I really wanted them not to do, I understood the forces that came together to influence those choices. All the characters were very flawed and very real. The people, like their islands, were both beautiful and broken—as are we all.

Rosecrans: Final question: When we leave the first half, Nainoa is questing up into the mountains, part of his recovery from his EMT experience. Both of us have already read the book, so we know what happens next. Do you remember your first time through? What were your hopes at this point?

Beth: The very end of this section reminded me of many of Nainoa’s earlier experiences connecting with other living things—seeing through the eyes of the animals that came to him—so I hoped maybe he was finding a connection to the island itself in a new and powerful way, and we would discover more about what that connection was really for. The tug he felt in his shoulders I thought maybe was like feeling the pull of wings. I’m not sure really exactly where I thought it was going, but there was a feeling of hope and expansion in a couple of the storylines at this point—oh wait, oh wait—I sort of wish that I had stopped there! Instead I just let the audiobook continue.

One of the disadvantages of audiobooks that has bothered me more with some books than others, is that many times you lose the impact of the formatting and the structure of the written book. Chapters don’t have the same impact, section breaks don’t really register. For many books it doesn’t matter at all, but in others, the structure is really something of a key to the book. A few books come to mind—Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. My most recent book where I really felt I lost a lot by doing it on audio was Flights by Olga Tokarczuk. And a couple years ago, I remember I really wished I was reading the print version of The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton. We’ve already talked about how much the narrator changes are critical to Sharks in the Time of Saviors, and they are nicely accentuated in the audio, but section breaks didn’t really register as I listened. I’m reading it in print this time through, and I really want to pay attention to the separate sections and their titles so that they have the impact the author intended. I am sort of picturing pausing there as like sitting down to rest and take in the view during a hike—a chance to reflect, breathe. I haven’t reread to the break between sections three and four yet, and I’m curious if it will make a difference to pause there, too (and now I am mad at myself for not pausing after the first section break this time through!). All of this is making me look forward to reading those nice physical books on a back porch in New Hampshire!

Rosecrans: Thanks for everything, Beth, and good luck on your move to New England. Campers, join us in the comments, and then return here next week when we finish Sharks—and you vote on which of our two June books heads to the end-of-summer finale!


The Camp ToB 2020 Calendar

  • June 3: The City We Became through page 214 (finish chapter 7)
  • June 10: The City We Became to the end
  • June 17: Sharks in the Time of Saviors through page 191 (finish part 2)
  • June 24: Sharks in the Time of Saviors to the end
  • July 1: VACATION
  • July 8: The Night Watchman through page 227
  • July 15: The Night Watchman to the end
  • July 22: Such a Fun Age through part two
  • July 29: Such a Fun Age to the end
  • Aug. 5: Writers & Lovers through page 165
  • Aug. 12: Writers & Lovers to the end
  • Aug. 19: Weather through page 99
  • Aug. 26: Weather to the end
  • Sept. 2: Announce summer champion

The Tournament of Books’ organizers Andrew Womack and Rosecrans Baldwin are TMN’s co-founders. Baldwin’s most recent book is Everything Now, winner of the 2022 California Book Award. For his other books, try More by The Tournament of Books Staff

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