Sunday, June 13, 2010

163 (2010 #28). Honolulu

by Alan Brennert

I got this book through interlibrary loan, intending to read it before or during my recent trip to Hawaii. Unfortunately, I was too busy (and therefore too exhausted) from work to get it read on top of planning the trip and reading my local book club's May selection. Therefore, I didn't start reading it until I got back from the trip on May 31.

Honolulu begins in the early 1900s in Korea, with a girl whose parents have named her Regret. In an effort to escape the limiting life of women in Korea in that era and perhaps get an education, in 1914 she becomes a "picture bride" for a man in Hawaii. Unfortunately their photos don't depict reality, and Regret winds up with a drunk gambling sugar cane plantation worker who beats her. When such a beating causes a miscarriage, she escapes to Honolulu and starts calling herself Jin, the name given to her by a former prostitute in Korea who taught her to read.

In Honolulu, Jin encounters real people from history that Brennert has woven into her story. Some are well-known, such as Queen Liliʻuokalani and Duke Kahanamoku. Others are more obscure: Joseph Kahahawai Jr. of the infamous Massie Case, Chang Apana (the real-life detective who was the model for Charlie Chan), and even the inspiration for the W. Somerset Maugham short story Miss Thompson, later retitled Rain (Brennert gives her the fictional first name of May). Jin is a seamstress and winds up working for Ellory Chun, who registered the trade name for Aloha shirts (although he may not have come up with the idea for them). The book provides an entertaining and informative picture of life in Hawaii from 1914 to 1937 from the point of view of the "locals" - native Hawaiians and Asian immigrants like Jin and her fellow picture brides and their families.

I read Brennert's Moloka'i about a year and a half earlier and loved it. In my opinion, Honolulu is not quite as good. I think Brennert tries a little too hard to incorporate the various real-life characters into the story, and it comes off as feeling forced. Nevertheless, it's still good historical fiction, as I could relate it to places I'd seen, and I have been inspired to read more about the people and events of the time.

There are a couple of quotes in this book I really liked, and both come near the end of this 354-page book (360 with Brennert's helpful author's note). While Jin visits her family in Korea in 1937, her mother shows her a chogak-po, a patchwork cloth she has made:
She pointed out a half dozen of the black rectangles, scattered randomly. . . "I added these on the day my mother died. . . because that was my mood that day. There is no pattern to where I placed them, as there is no sense to be made of death. One's eye may not go to them first, but next to them the blues look bluer, the reds richer, the golds more brilliant. Without them the cloth is pretty, but without character or contrast."
In the epilogue, while celebrating her 60th birthday in 1957, Jin says,
Hawai'i has often been called a melting pot, but I think of it more as a "mixed plate" - a scoop of rice with gravy, a scoop of macaroni salad, a piece of mahi-mahi, and a side of kimchi. Many different tastes share the plate, but none of them loses its individual flavor, and together they make up a uniquely "local" cuisine. This is also, I believe, what America is at its best--a whole greater than the sum of its parts.
© Amanda Pape - 2010

[This book was borrowed through interlibrary loan and has been returned.]

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