The Return of Miss Ulysses

As a teenager Johnny Frisbee left Pukapuka, traveled the world and wrote a classic account of growing up on a South Seas atoll. Sixty-five years later, she headed home.
Story by Shannon Wianecki. Photos by Elyse Butler Mallams.

“I guess it’s in my blood, this wandering spirit,” Johnny Frisbie writes in her autobiography, Miss Ulysses from Puka-Puka. “On my mother’s side I am descended from navigators as bold as the Vikings. I have read in schoolbooks about how Captain Cook discovered some of the South Seas Islands and Bougainville discovered others. What nonsense! My people discovered all Polynesia centuries before Cook and Bougainville were born.”

In 1948 a teenage girl aimed to set the record straight about life in the outer reaches of the South Pacific. From a place most Westerners considered primitive—and from a girl, no less—a clarion literary voice emerged: confident, clever and curious about the world. That voice belonged to Florence Johnny Frisbie, the daughter of a Pukapukan woman and an American adventurer.

Johnny’s ancestral home, Pukapuka, is smaller than a grain of sand on most maps. The tiny, triangular atoll consists of three islets surrounding a turquoise lagoon, roughly ten degrees below the equator in the center of the Pacific. It’s part of the Cook Islands, though it lies 708 miles northwest of the nation’s population center, Rarotonga. Rarotongans consider it a backwater, but to Pukapukans, both native-born and adopted, the far-flung island is an unmatched paradise. The atoll was—and still is—a world unto itself: a community of around 650 people living comfortably on what they can coax from the sea and from their mile-long strip of land. They speak their own language and abide by their own ancient economy, collectively sharing the island’s natural resources.

“I hunted long for this sanctuary. Now that I have found it, I have no intention, and certainly no desire, ever to leave it again.” So wrote Johnny’s father in The Book of Puka-Puka in 1929. (He used a variant, hyphenated spelling of the island’s name because he felt it was “more dignified,” says Johnny, who followed suit in her own writing.) Robert Dean Frisbie was an imaginative nonconformist from Ohio who sought to get as far from “civilization” as possible. Inspired by Robert Louis Steven-son, he sailed to Tahiti, then Rarotonga and finally Pukapuka. The boat captain warned Frisbie that he might go mad in such an isolated spot.

Instead he found home. Pukapukans rechristened him “Ropati Cowboy” because he hailed from America, the land of cowboys. Ostensibly employed as a South Seas trader, Frisbie set up shop in a two-story house selling tobacco, soap, shoes and bolts of bright cotton fabric. The residents of Pukapuka purchased these luxuries with money they earned selling copra (dried coconut) to the ships that stopped by twice a year. Frisbie adopted the Pukapukan diet: fish, seabird and turtle eggs, taro and uto (sprouted coconuts eaten raw or baked). As a veteran of the First World War, he received disability checks from the US government, but his main income came from his writing. Atlantic Monthly readers lived vicariously through his accounts of shark fishing, surviving hurricanes and wooing island women. Frisbie’s Book of Puka-Puka became a classic, taught for decades by literature professors at the University of Hawai‘i and elsewhere. In it he describes courting and marrying 16-year-old Ngatokura ‘A Mata’a. The couple had five children, their own gang of rambunctious cowboys. Frisbie came to rely on his eldest daughter, Johnny, whom he named after a sailor he’d befriended—or possibly after the ship’s cargo of Johnnie Walker whiskey. Probably both.

Johnny Frisbie turns 85 this year, though she’s as vital as someone twenty years younger. Sitting in her daughter’s house in Mānoa on O‘ahu, she remembers her father reading Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey to the children. “Those were the stories he told us when we were in bed or lying under the stars counting the seabirds coming in,” she says. “We were so excited about the adventures of Ulysses. We tried to imagine what he was like, what Circe and Calypso were like.”

Young Johnny helped her father type his manuscripts and began keeping a journal herself. She recorded her thoughts in three languages: Pukapukan, Rarotongan and English (the last she learned by scouring her father’s library and reading the Prince Valiant comics that her uncle sent by ship from the US). “My father began hinting, saying ‘You have a story to tell. That’s why it’s very important to look up words in the dictionary,’” says Johnny. But he didn’t rush her. After all, there was only one typewriter in that corner of the Pacific: his.

Robert Frisbie penned a classic account of life in his adoptive home on the remote atoll and encouraged his daughter to write, too. In 1948, Johnny’s own memoir, Miss Ulysses from Puka-Puka, was published. “I didn’t open it at first,” she says. “I just stared at the cover.”

While Robert Frisbie extolled the allure of the South Seas as an outsider, his daughter offered a native’s perspective on the simple magic of daily life: collecting lobsters and periwinkles, climbing trees to pluck tropicbirds’ feathers to trade with ships’ merchants and catching coconut crabs. On moonlit nights she and her brother Jakey listened to their relatives spin yarns. Grandfather Mata’a scared the children with stories of Papua New Guinea’s cannibals, whom he’d tried to convert after he graduated from missionary school in Rarotonga. He and the other elders stayed up late into the night chanting mako, epic poetry about wars and voyages of discovery.

Such storytellers have inhabited Puka-puka for at least two thousand years. Three or four centuries ago, a catastrophic storm nearly wiped out the entire population; only around seventeen people survived. Every Pukapukan alive now traces his or her lineage back to these survivors. And after the big storm came the “blackbirders”—Peruvian slavers who kidnapped 145 men and women to mine guano in 1863.

Johnny left Pukapuka for the first time at age ten, sailing with her father to Fiji and Sāmoa. “It was my Ulysses journey!” she says. “It was big time. I was a traveler, a discoverer.” At each port she learned the local songs and dances so that upon returning home she could relay this essential and expected information. In Miss Ulysses, Johnny details these adventures with a teen’s frankness. Her father’s hand weighs heavily on the book (which he translated and edited), but her unique perspective bursts through. Through her eyes, readers glimpse a sprawling but cohesive Pacific nation—islands separated by a vast ocean but tied together with strands of shared history, family and culture.

The Frisbie children’s idyll was shattered in 1939, when their mother Ngatokura succumbed to tuberculosis. Grief-stricken, Robert Frisbie took his children to Suwarrow, an uninhabited island. The kids, then ages four to ten, wove coconut fronds into shelters and caught seabirds for food. It was there that the Frisbies survived the fury of a cyclone by tying themselves to trees. Through the night seawater rushed beneath them, carrying away their meager possessions—along with most of the island. The next day they pulled their outrigger canoe, a few books and some letters from the ruins; everything else was lost.

Robert Frisbie’s health had never been good; it deteriorated precipitously after that. Tuberculosis, elephantiasis and alcoholism crippled him. Finally, a reporter by the name of James Michener accompanied the ailing vet to a military hospital in Sāmoa. Over the next two years, Johnny tended to her father and wrote her book, which was published shortly before he died. Michener took Frisbie’s orphaned children under his wing. He raised funds among the American literary community to send Johnny and her sisters to Hawai‘i; her brothers were already in New Zealand.

Johnny arrived on O‘ahu in 1950. The Engles, a prominent Lanikai family, took her in. Their neighbors adopted her sisters, Elaine and Nga. “I was a curiosity, that’s for sure,” Johnny says of her early days in Hawai‘i. “I was in the paper a lot.” She remembers giving a talk on Cook Island culture to the girls at Kamehameha School.“They didn’t know anything about the Cook Islands. It was as foreign as Switzerland or Africa. That surprised me.” The Frisbie sisters adapted quickly and did as they were raised to do: share their traditional dances. They introduced the hypnotic Cook Island drum dance to Hawai‘i on Don the Beachcomer’s iconic Waikīkī stage. Elaine created the wildly popular “Puka-Puka Otea” show and engaged dancers from other South Pacific islands.

Michener checked in on the Frisbie girls every so often. He encouraged Johnny to take a job in Yokohama as a military colonel’s secretary, where she lived for two years. When she confessed she was lonely in Japan, he recommended that she pour her suffering onto the page. So she composed a long letter to her father, which became the basis for her second book. Published in 1959, The Frisbies of the South Seas covers much of the same ground as the first but additionally grapples with her father’s death. On weekends she performed hula and drum dance, which proved a surreal experience. “You expect some clapping,” she says, “But after my dance it would be hundreds of Japanese men staring. No clapping. No looking at each other. No expressions whatsoever!”

Johnny left Pukapuka for the first time at age ten, traveling to Fiji and Sāmoa with her father and making a point to learn local songs and dances at each port. It was the first of many journeys for Johnny, who went on to live in Hawai‘i, Sāmoa, Japan and New Zealand.

One man did more than clap, however. He asked Johnny’s hand in marriage. Hawai‘i’s first TV personality, Carl “Kini Popo” Hebenstreit was in Japan filming and crossed paths with the Pukapukan writer. They married in 1956. After their second child was born, Johnny convinced Hebenstreit to move to New Zealand, where a large number of Pukapukans live. Puka-puka itself was too remote, but she wanted her children to experience their cultural heritage and the intimacy with the natural world that she knew as a child.

“New Zealand was an absolute fairy tale,” Johnny says. “We tramped in the mountains, went down rivers and explored coastlines.” During her three decades there, Johnny worked at the University of Otago, wrote children’s books and represented Cook Islanders on the Māori and South Pacific Arts Council. A true salt-of-the-sea islander, Johnny has hopped across the Pacific from one archipelago to the next, but Pukapuka held a stubborn place in her heart. “If I had stayed there all my life, I wouldn’t have seen anything of the world,” she says. “At the same time I’ve always felt a longing to go back.”

In 2011 Amelia Borofsky was in San Francisco finishing a post-doc in psychology when she pulled an old copy of Miss Ulysses from Puka-Puka from her bookshelf. As she flipped through its yellowed pages, her own childhood memories came to life. “I decided that was it,” she says, “I was going back to Pukapuka.”

Amelia’s parents moved to the atoll in 1977, when she was one year old. Her father, an ethnologist, planned to study the impact of Westernization since 1938, the year the first ethnographic study of Puka-puka was published. But upon arrival he discovered that Pukapuka hadn’t been Westernized. He and his family stayed four years, documenting the islanders’ efficient approach to managing their limited natural resources. Amelia grew up catching coconut crabs and dancing to drums. Pukapukan was her first language. “I knew I would return someday,” she says.

When Johnny was growing up on Pukapuka, “The only book on the island was the Bible,” she says. Until she learned to read, “I thought all of the books in my father’s library were Bibles.” Later she immersed herself in Shakespeare, Chaucer and Homer. From Homer she borrowed her moniker, Miss Ulysses, for the life of travel and adventure on which she’d embarked.

After Miss Ulysses rekindled that desire, Amelia began investigating travel options. Pukapuka remains almost as isolated as it was when Robert Frisbie first stepped ashore. The only way there is to hitch a ride aboard a cargo ship or pay a small fortune to charter a flight from Rarotonga. Visitors need permission to stay there, as they are wholly reliant on islanders for food and shelter—and there’s no guarantee when they’ll be able to leave.

Amelia first returned to Pukapuka in 2012. “It was quite a homecoming,” she says. “I was immediately adopted as if I had never left. I was given a taro patch of my own, which is a really big deal.” Over the next three years, she made several more trips, working for the Ministry of Education there to set up an indigenous education program. She helped revive a chanting competition and oversaw the construction of a traditional vaka (canoe). She now lives on Pukapuka part-time.

Amelia’s work inspired her close friend, filmmaker Gemma Cubero del Barrio. They wanted to shoot a documentary about Pukapuka and invited Johnny to be a part of it. “I could tell she was hesitant,” says Gemma. “But she was wonderful about making it happen.”

“I was warned that Pukapuka had changed,” says Johnny. “I was prepared for that.” Most houses have tin roofs now, though some are still thatched. Solar panels provide the island with electricity. Cellphones and computers enable Pukapukans to stay in touch with those who have left. But one thing hasn’t changed: the islanders’ love for feasts and celebrations.

When the film crew landed, the entire population showed up to greet them. Their luggage was carted by wheelbarrow down the single gravel road. Johnny stayed next door to her brother, Charles Frisbie. At age 86, “Papa Charlie” is the oldest man on the island. “Reuniting with him was amazing,” says Johnny. “We were together every day. He took me on his moped, drove me around the island and sang to me.”

Amelia Borofsky, seen above in yellow headdress with filmmaker Gemma Cubero, spent her early childhood on Pukapuka. After rereading Miss Ulysses in 2011, she decided to return to the island, along with Johnny, and make a documentary film with Cubero of the experience. Homecoming: A Film About Puka-Puka, is scheduled for release in 2017.

Gemma and her crew worked six days a week, interviewing the island’s only police officer and bank employee as well as schoolchildren and hurricane survivors. After seven weeks of immersion in island life, the crew needed to return home and chartered a plane. As it flew over Suwarrow—where the Frisbies had weathered the hurricane—Johnny saw the island from above for the first time. The journey was bittersweet, she says, because she knew she would never return.

“Going to Pukapuka changed me in ways I’m not even aware of yet,” says Gemma. “It inspired me to simplify, cultivate my spiritual life and keep my sense of humor.” She hopes the documentary will similarly inspire its audience. Slated for release in 2017, Homecoming: A Film About Puka-Puka will share the story of Johnny and Amelia’s return and shed light on what Pacific Islanders face as a consequence of global warming and rising seas.

Coincidentally, after Johnny returned from Pukapuka, a publisher approached her about reprinting her first book. After sixty-plus years, Miss Ulysses of Puka-Puka (spelled with a hyphen) is available once again. HH