By Krista Walton
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, March 11, 2009
By Alan Brennert
St. Martin's. 360 pp. $24.95
In America's collective consciousness, Hawaii is largely idealized, a modern-day Eden dotted with palm trees, cloudless skies -- a vacation destination and little else. But beyond the Aloha State's tropical climate and white-sand beaches lies unrivaled cultural complexity, a rich and sometimes dark history that is frequently whitewashed by the islands' blindingly paradisiacal qualities.
Alan Brennert's "Honolulu" redirects our attention to Hawaii's oft-overlooked background through the story of Jin, a young woman who immigrates to Oahu early in the 20th century. Born to a conservative family in Korea, Jin is reared in a culture where women were largely isolated from the greater community, forbidden to attend school and considered "merely vessels by which to provide society with an uninterrupted supply of men." (Her given name is Regret, a moniker that reflects how her parents felt about the birth of a daughter.) At 16, yearning for freedom and education, Jin auctions herself off as a "picture bride" to a supposedly handsome, well-to-do man who will pay for her to come live with him in Hawaii. Jin has barely traveled outside her village, but Hawaii, she's assured, is "a tropical paradise, where food grows so abundantly that if one is hungry, all one needs to do is reach up and pick something off a tree to eat."
Instead, Jin arrives in Oahu to marry an alcoholic who works long hours on a sugar cane plantation, gambles away his nominal wages and beats her. Desperate and terrified, she flees to downtown Honolulu. There, as the city around her develops from a provincial boom town to a cosmopolitan capital, she meets unlikely friends and fellow immigrants. With their help and her inherent resourcefulness, Jin grows into an independent, prosperous woman living a tropical version of the American dream.
To its core, "Honolulu" is meticulously researched. (Brennert's previous novel, "Moloka'i," also depicted a precocious heroine in Old Hawaii.) He intersperses cultural details -- song lyrics, movies, popular books from the era -- that add textured authenticity, and he incorporates major historic events, such as the Japanese annexation of Korea in 1910 and the Oriental Exclusion Act of 1924. Most dramatically, Brennert uses characters from the Massie trial, a 1932 criminal case in which a white woman was charged with murdering a young Hawaiian boy who had been accused of raping the woman's daughter. As it did in history, the trial divides the characters in "Honolulu" along racial lines and lays bare the resentment between locals and haoles (the white colonial overclass).
In many respects, Jin's story is prototypical, the bildungsroman of an aspiring woman, yearning for a life beyond the one society has prescribed. (Jin Eyre, anyone?) But in mooring this familiar character to the unique history of early-20th-century Hawaii, Brennert portrays the Aloha State's history as complicated and dynamic -- not simply a melting pot, but a Hawaiian-style "mixed plate" in which, as Jin sagely notes, "many different tastes share the plate, but none of them loses its individual flavor, and together they make up a uniquely 'local' cuisine."
Walton is the assistant editor for Preservation magazine.