Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Book 71: Honolulu

In ways, Alan Brennert revisits familiar scenes and characters when he writes his historical fiction novels, and yet I always enjoy them and they still seem fresh.  His choice of setting certainly helps: since Moloka'i and Honolulu were both set in Hawaii, it adds just a slightly different spin from other stories about immigrants or minority populations in the US.  As a result, while a novel like Shanghai Girls felt like it was retreading the same old story about Asian immigrants to America with its LA Chinatown setting, there was just enough that was different and unique about Hawaii's history to make this feel like something new.  Certain themes are recognizable when it comes to stories of immigration regardless of the immigrant's background or their new home, but I feel like Hawaii's racial history is slightly different, at least as far as more recent history is concerned.  Unlike many cities in the US, there was still a rather large native population when people were immigrating.  For example, a novel about New York in the late 19th century could easily focus on immigrants adjusting to their new surroundings, and the oppression and xenophobia they might face from Americans.  In Hawaii, or Honolulu specifically, the whites were pracitically immigrants themselves but this didn't prevent them from taking control of the territory from the local Hawaiians.  This novel addresses how a large native and immigrant populations led to different racial tensions than in other places.  In ways, the racism was perhaps less pronounced but as this novel clearly demonstrated, it existed and it was damaging to the local community.
Regret, the novel's narrator, was an unwanted daughter in a Korean family, and through her aunt, she learns to read.  Regret wants more for her life than she could see herself having in Korea, especially with her very conservative father, her plain features and the fact that her dowry wouldn't be excessive.  As a result, she ends up speaking to missionaries, and chooses to put herself in the running as a picture bride.  She and her childhood friend are both selected by Korean men already in Hawaii, and prepare themselves for their journey.  Regret and three other picture brides meet on the passage to Hawaii, and though they would never have expected this, these four women will play an important role in each other's lives as they find their ways in Hawaii.  All four are disappointed when they realize that their new husbands sent old pictures of themselves, and their lives are going to entail lots of hard work.  Regret actually gets the worst of the lot, because her husband soon turns out to be an alcholic abusive gambler.  Eventually, she figures a way out of her predicament, and chooses to call herself Jin, or Gem, a nickname a friend once gave her.
Every time I read a novel by Alan Brennert, it leaves me with a strong desire to visit Hawaii.  This novel was no different - he does a great job of making the island and his characters come alive.  Additionally, by choosing to have his narrator be Korean, he is able to work in several different fascinating pieces of history.  About the first hundred pages of this novel take place in Korea, and in addition to showing Jin's family background and her conservative upbringing, he also brings into focus the fact that Korea was occupied by the Japanese at this point.  Jin discusses the hardships faced by her and her fellow country men, and the resistance they offered to their occupiers.  As a result, she easily relates to the native Hawaiians and the last Hawaiian queen whose land has been taken from her by the white Americans.  Brennert ties in other important events from the period, ones that most readers probably would not know about, such as the red light district in Hawaii and its eventual closure, and a local event which sounded very much like lynchings in the South and led to a huge trial which raised racial discontent and tensions as a result.
This is exactly what I look for in historical fiction - I gain new understanding and insight into a topic, and the protagonist is engaging enough to want me to continue to read, and doesn't seem too much like a copy of other protagonists from historical fiction.  Additionally, it is entertaining - it is obvious that Brennert did a great deal of research but at no point did I feel like he was lecturing me or trying to show off everything he learned - instead it all fit in the novel organically and simply enhanced the setting.  I enjoyed spending time with Jin, and I liked how Brennert incorporated her into major events without making her the center.  I'd definitely recommend this one, and I really do need to get to Hawaii one of these days.

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