High on a cliff in Hawaii in 1807, an irrepressibly curious native boy dives into the sea and swims to an American merchant ship anchored offshore, embarking on an extraordinary adventure that will change history.
Young Hiapo Opukahaia (Hee-ah-poh Oh-poo-kai-ee-ya) and his family are happily thriving when a bitter war between two rival chiefs tears them apart. The enemy chief adopts the orphaned boy and forces him to learn the ways of a warrior. Hiapo manages to triumph through unexpected friendships, until a shocking accident changes his life once again.
Saved by an uncle who is a “kahuna nui,” or high priest, Hiapo becomes his apprentice. One day he sees a miraculous sight below him in the bay: “an enormous canoe with great white wings like a magnificent bird.” It is the merchant schooner Triumph out of New England, and it is irresistible.
He signs on as cabin boy, and soon acquires from his fellow sailors the more pronounceable first name of Henry. After a year of wild adventures—storms, pirates, daunting adversity, deep bonds with comrades and, most significant, the chance for him to master English—the ship arrives in America. Opukahaia realizes he desperately wants to keep learning but has no idea how.
When he is found weeping on the steps of Yale college, a kind student leads him to the school’s president, who takes him under his wing. Henry becomes a scholar and eventually creates the written Hawaiian language that is still in use today.