No matter who you are or where you come from, in Hawaii you are greeted with a lei of fresh flowers and a kiss on a cheek. And this practice may help explain the demise of what was once an independent kingdom of native people who subsisted for centuries on one of the most beautiful places on Earth.
The native Hawaiian people have welcomed visitors to their shores since Capt.James Cook first set foot on the islands in the 18th century. Also, over time and at critical moments, Hawaiians have embraced ideas from foreigners who did not have the locals’ interests at heart.
In Julia Flynn Siler’s new book, “Lost Kingdom,” we get a close look at how foreigners from Germany, Britain and the United States jockeyed for influence and schemed to take over the government during Hawaii’s last few decades of independence. Siler’s experience as a reporter for the Wall Street Journal serves her well as she depicts the figures who brought down the islands’ monarchy. She suggests that, given the imbalance between those global powers and the tiny island nation, its conquest was inevitable.
As one who is part native Hawaiian, I’m thrilled to see the history of Hawaii getting a mini-revival in the past few years after decades of, well, pretty much nothing since James Mitchener’s novel “Hawaii” appeared in 1959.
Last summer, Sarah Vowell took on the daunting task of encapsulating the history of the island — and of other U.S. conquests — in her book “Unfamiliar Fishes.” And over the holidays, the movie “The Descendants,” starring George Clooney and based on Kaui Hart Hemming’s novel of the same name, hit the big screen with its plot of a man struggling over what to do with his inheritance: thousands of untouched Hawaiian acres. (He is white, of course, as is every other major character in the movie, with not a native Hawaiian among them.)
Siler paints an engaging portrait of Hawaii’s ruling class under fire and desperate to keep the monarchy together. She tells the complicated story of Hawaii’s last king, Kalakaua, and his sister who succeeded him, Queen Lili’uokalani, whom she calls “Lili’u.” And she introduces us to the sugar barons and businessmen and diplomats who tried to chip away at the monarchy’s power in order to exploit Hawaii economically and militarily.
Through no fault of Siler’s, this part of Hawaii’s history is difficult to follow. There are many members of the royal family, multiple developments on the diplomatic and economic fronts that led to the the end of the monarchy. What I take away from the book, more than any details, is the slow inexorability of Hawii’s downfall: It happened decade by decade, until the kingdom finally ran out of bargaining power.
Siler entertains the reader with her portrayal of Kalakaua, whose nickname, the “Merrie Monarch,” fit the caricature of a hard-drinking, lavish party-throwing and overeating king. He is known for bringing the hula back after it had been banned under previous Hawaiian kings and queens, who had converted to Christianity and thought it was too sexually suggestive.
With new access to diaries and writings by Lili’u, Siler is able to reveal the queen’s fragile state of mind as she is brought down by her enemies. But sometimes the author relies too heavily on English-language newspaper accounts, failing to do justice to the passions of the participants, especially the native Hawiians. Too often native Hawaiians are left in the background of the political maneuverings, and she mentions crowds of Hawiians “wailing” or “crying” so many times that it becomes a cliché.
We never get a sense of the queen’s soul, of what she was fighting for and to what end. Lili’u wrote more than a hundred songs about her country in her native tongue, evidence of a heart that had much to say to her people. But we don’t get a full picture of who she is — only a sense that, when it came her time to take the throne, she didn’t stand a chance.
LOST KINGDOM Hawaii’s Last Queen, the Sugar Kings, and America’s First Imperial Adventure
By Julia Flynn Siler
Atlantic Monthly. 415 pp. $30