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Redefining the Great American Novel

February 15, 2013

Redefining the great American novel

Kato Ha’unga has spent three years collecting books, all kinds of books: children’s books and textbooks, cookbooks, fiction, non-fiction, mysteries, romances, how-tos, you name it. She’s gathered nearly 50,000 books over those years. She stacked them in boxes and bags. She piled them into a storage shed, under her desk, in her car, at her house; wherever she could find a nook for a book.

Gathering the books was the easy part. Getting them to their destination has been the challenge.

The books are destined for Tonga, a group of islands in the South Pacific Ocean, southeast of Fiji and north of New Zealand. On a flat map, it doesn’t look that far, just across the International Dateline and a bit south of the Equator.

In reality, it’s about 7,000 miles, half a world away.

How would she get them there? Shipping or mailing would cost thousands of dollars. Donations? Spaghetti dinners at 10 bucks a plate? A big Luau?

Then came a ray of hope.

Ha’unga garnered media attention during her long book drive. And to any reporter who asked, she stressed that she needed help getting the books to Tonga. Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski saw the story, and asked her staff to help. A staffer made a few calls, and learned the U.S. Navy has a program, called Project Handclasp, that does just this kind of thing. It’s a humanitarian aid program.

Perfect! Ha’unga just needed to get the books to the Naval base. In San Diego. Way down in California. The distance narrowed, but still seemed insurmountable.

The challenge was forefront in her mind while Ha’unga attended the January session of her Leadership Anchorage group, a nine-month program sponsored by the Alaska Humanities Forum that helps individuals develop leadership skills. Joe Terrell, president and CEO of Bristol Industries, was a guest speaker that day, talking about his leadership style in running a group of engineering, construction and environmental remediation firms. An avid reader, and husband to a librarian, Terrell offered Bristol’s services to help bridge the gap.

The fairytale ending was in sight.

Bristol tasked one of its logistics experts to work out the packing and shipping details. The communications department worked with two local transportation companies – Totem Ocean Trailer Express (TOTE) and Carlile Transportation Systems – to get the goods down the coast.

Missionaries from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints volunteered muscle power to lug boxes and boxes of books from a storage shed to Bristol’s South Anchorage shop. They stacked them on pallets and readied them for pick up. Carlile picked them up, filling a 40-foot trailer, and hauled the trailer to TOTE’s facilities at the Port of Anchorage.

From there, TOTE is now set to transport the trailer to its facility at the Port of Tacoma, and hand the trailer off to Carlile, who will truck it down the highway to San Diego and the U.S. Navy.

Kato Ha’unga is finally seeing a long-held dream come to fruition. She’s planning to fly to Tonga this spring to greet her books as they arrive from their long journey, and start their new life in a library donated by the Prince and Princess of Tonga.

The work isn’t done yet. A devastating tsunami in 2009 damaged the building that houses the library. But Ha’unga is plotting that chapter too. She’s fundraising, with the help of United Way, to get enough money to fix the facility, getting it ready for generations of Tongans to read and learn to love books.

She’s exploring ideas about bookmobiles and even boat-mobiles (Book-Boat-mobiles? She’s still working on the title). The goal is to get books to the people who don’t have access to the main library, like people living in rural villages and on nearby islands.

The ever-energetic, always smiling Ha’unga has collected books for so long. What will she do now?

She’s thinking Tonga needs an art museum.


A few of the characters in this tale:

Kato Ha’unga: To see more on her project, the Northern Lights Library, go to

Bristol Alliance of Companies:

Totem Ocean Trailer Express:

Carlile Transportation Systems:

Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski:

Airport Equipment Rentals (donated a forklift to move the pallets):

Countless Alaskans and Alaska businesses who donated books.


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