Robert Dean Frisbie

The Book of Puka Puka

Robert Dean Frisbie

It was in 1924 that Robert Frisbie, born in Ohio in 1896, came to Pukapuka to run a small trading store for A.B.Donald. After leaving the United States Frisbie lived in Tahiti, Moorea and Rarotonga, but he yearned for the total isolation which he hoped would fully liberate his artistic spirit and so help him write a classic novel of the South Seas. Robert Dean Frisbie saw himself as a successor to Herman Melville and Robert Louis Stevenson, writers he greatly admired.

And so, much has been written about this fascinating island and its culture.

It is now possible to visit Pukapuka a regular Northern Atoll Adventure charters or you could charter your own aircraft to visit this truly remote place.

Puka Puka is mostly visited by cruising yatchies

Life of Robert Dean Frisbie

Robert Frisbie was born on April 17, 1896, the son of Arthur Grazly Frisbie and Florence Benson. As a young man, he left his parental home to serve in the U.S. Army during World War I. After discharge from the military, doctors told him that his health was so bad that he would not survive another American winter. So, in 1920, he decided to explore the islands of the South Pacific Ocean.

He arrived at his first destination, Tahiti, in that year, settled down to lead a life as a plantation owner in Papeete, and began to write about his travels.

He also established the South Seas News and Pictorial Syndicate and began sending stories back to the U.S. for publication. In later voyages through Polynesia (spanning his entire lifetime), he regularly visited the Cook Islands, Samoa and French Polynesia.

In writing down his observations of life in the Pacific, Frisbie followed the footsteps of other famous 19th century South Sea writers. One of his major influences was Robert Louis Stevenson.

He was also well informed of the work of fellow travel writers in his time, with whom he kept in touch.

Life on Puka–Puka

In Tahiti, Frisbie (dubbed: “Ropati,” a phonetic approximation of “Robert”. This is where he met Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall, well-known co-authors of the Mutiny on the Bounty series. This encouraged Frisbie to write his first complete narrative, which marked the starting point of his career.

The Book of Puka Puka, published in 1929 by The Century Company, related the tale of his eternal search for solitude on the far-flung Northern Cook atoll of Pukapuka.

Frisbie writes that life on Pukapuka enabled him to escape “the faintest echo from the noisy clamour of the civilised world.”

On Pukapuka Frisbie met 16-year-old Ngatokorua (Also known as Inangaro which, when translated, means "Desire"). They were married in 1928 on Penrhyn, Northern Cook Islands.

“Nga” became the mother of their five children: Charles, Florence, William, Elaine and Ngatokorua. In 1930 the family sailed back to Tahiti and Robert Dean Frisbie started working on his second novel, My Tahiti (Little Brown & Co., 1937) and worked on another book, A Child of Tahiti, which was never published.

Hurricane at Suwarrow

In the 1940s, after the death of Frisbie’s wife, the family visited the uninhabited Northern Cook atoll Suwarrow and lived there for almost a year. The celebrated story of their hurricane survival on a tiny motu (islet) was serialized by in the Atlantic Monthly as The Story of an Island: Marooned by Request in 1943 and later in the novel The Island of Desire.

Another notable character in Frisbie’s life was Tom Neale.

A loner inspired by Frisbie’s tales of isolation on Suwarrow, he also lived alone on the atoll. After his first visit in 1952, he wrote the book An Island to Oneself (Doubleday, 1966), in which he credits Frisbie as his inspiration.

Johnny Frisbie

Florence Frisbie (better known as Johnny ) was born on June 19, 1932 in Papeete, Tahiti, the second child of Robert Dean Frisbie and Ngatokorua Frisbie. As a youngster encouraged by her father to write, Johnny kept journals in three languages (including Pukapukan).

At the age of 12 she began an autobiographical children’s novel based on these journals, Miss Ulysses of Puka-Puka, which deals with her life on the atoll and her bond with her father and family. Miss Ulysses was published by Macmillan Co in 1948. After her father's death in 1948, Johnny wrote another biography of her family, The Frisbies of the South Seas (Doubleday, 1959).

Johnny spent a lot of time in later years on Rarotonga and devoted many hours , tirelessly, in the Rarotongan Library


In 1943, diagnosed with tuberculosis, Frisbie was evacuated by then U.S. Navy Lieutenant James Michener to a hospital on American Samoa.

His recovery was spotty, but he continued to travel, write and publish until his death at age 52, on November 18 (or 19), 1948, from an apparent tetanus infection.

He was survived by his five children, who were subsequently raised by friends and relatives in New Zealand and Hawaii.


Robert Dean Frisbie produced a great number of sketches, articles and books that were printed by several publishers in America. His first article was Fei-hunting in Polynesia (1923, Forum).

Frisbie’s autobiographical travel stories are of enduring value, offering detailed and humorous descriptions of island life in Polynesia and especially the Cook Islands. He also wrote many news stories for various periodicals like Pacific Islands Monthly.

His work is marked by a passionate search for solitude, his concern for the fate of island locals in the face of Anglo exploitation, and his desire to write the perfect American novel. His output is very impressive considering his personal hardships

Here to return From Robert Dean Frisbie to Characers and Legends Page