The novel tells the history of Hawaiian Islands from the creation of the isles to the time they became an American state, through the viewpoints of selected characters who represent their ethnic and cultural groups in the story (e.g., the Kee family represents the viewpoint of Chinese-Hawaiians). Most of the chapters cover the arrivals of different peoples to the islands.
Chapter 1: From the Boundless Deep describes the creation of the Hawaiian land from volcanic activity. Goes into flavorful detail describing such things as primary succession taking root on the island, to life finally blooming.
Chapter 2: From the Sunswept Lagoon follows the creation of the isles which is mentioned in the preceding chapter. The chapter begins on the island of Bora Bora, where many people, including the King Tamatoa and his brother Teroro, are upset with the neighboring isles of Havaiki, Tahiti, etc. because they are trying to force the Bora Borans to give up their old gods, Tane and Ta'aroa, and start worshiping Oro, the fire god, who constantly demands human sacrifices. Tamatoa suggests to his brother and friends that they should migrate to some other place where they might find religious freedom. After finally agreeing to this plan, his brother secretly puts fire to Havaiki to take revenge for the human sacrifices they have been demanding from Bora Borans. Later they take the canoe Wait for the West Wind and sail to Hawaii. Later some voyage back to Bora Bora to bring back with them some women and children and an idol of the volcano goddess, Pere.
Chapter 3: From the Farm of Bitterness follows the journey of the first Christian missionaries to Hawaii in the 1800s and their influence over Hawaiian culture and customs. Many of the missionaries become founding families in the islands, including the Hales and Whipples. Michener's character Reverend Abner Hale is a caricature of true-life missionary Hiram Bingham I.
Chapter 4: From the Starving Village covers the immigration of Chinese to work on the pineapple and sugarcane plantations. The patriarch of the Kee family contracts leprosy (a.k.a. the "Chinese sickness") and is sent to the leper colony in Molokai.
Chapter 5: From The Inland Sea focuses on Japanese workers brought to the islands to replace Chinese laborers who begin to start their own businesses. Also covers the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
The final chapter, Chapter 6: The Golden Men , summarizes the changes in Hawaiian culture and economics based on the intermarriages of various groups in the islands.