Thomas Jefferson was one of the first Americans to write a political memoir. Penned late in his life to settle debts, it sold tens of thousands of copies. Ulysses S. Grant, dying of throat cancer, also sought to raise money for his heirs by writing an account of his Civil War experiences. Grant’s hugely successful “Personal Memoirs” earned the equivalent of $12 million today.

Since then the political memoir genre has exploded. In the past 50 years more than 100 senators have written them, including, most memorably, Margaret Chase Smith, Barry Goldwater, Bill Bradley, Gary Hart, John McCain, Alan Simpson, Paul Tsongas, Lowell Weicker and Paul Wellstone.

Some use their political memoirs to settle scores, others to advance their careers. The most successful and satisfying make a significant political argument or draw back the curtain to reveal previously unknown details and truths about the authors and the events they have witnessed. In this regard “Heart of Fire,” which traces Mazie Hirono’s journey from poor immigrant to U.S. senator, is partially successful.

When Hirono writes about her childhood, her mother and family, their arrival in Hawaii from Japan, and the poverty, hardship, fear and struggle they faced, “Heart of Fire” is a revelatory, evocative, deeply moving book.

The sections dealing with Hirono’s political rise in Hawaii and her time in Congress are more guarded and less compelling. It is no surprise that Hirono, a Democrat who has been an outspoken critic of Donald Trump and Republicans in media interviews, frequently uses colorful and salty language in expressing her opposition to them here.

Hirono does call out some political allies and others she believes have crossed her or let her down along the way. But as a Democratic senator she clearly feels constrained from making significant criticisms or revelations about her own party and leadership. The most candid political memoirs are often written once someone is out of power — the most recent example being former House speaker John Boehner’s “On the House.”

Hirono, 73, has surely lived a memoir-worthy life. The Senate’s first Asian American woman and Buddhist, she is also the only immigrant currently in the Senate. She launched her political career 40 years ago and has served as a Hawaii state representative, lieutenant governor, member of the U.S. House and, since 2013, U.S. senator.

Hirono describes her father as an abusive alcoholic and compulsive gambler. Her mother fled Japan when Hirono was 9, bringing her children to Hawaii and working menial jobs for low wages to keep them fed. Hirono writes that her childhood insecurity strongly influenced her decision to enter politics: “It helped fuel my desire to study law and to position myself in rooms where I could advocate for those who were as vulnerable as our family had once been.” She has also been a fierce advocate for anti-discrimination legislation and this spring sponsored a bill to combat coronavirus-inspired hate crimes against Asian Americans, which passed the Senate 94 to 1 on April 22 and cleared the House 364 to 62 this past week.

Hirono’s “deep emotional connection” to her mother, Laura Chieko, is evident throughout the book, which is dedicated to the woman “who dared everything, and whose compass is my surest guide.” Hirono credits her mother’s love and constant support with enabling her accomplishments and teaching her that “we should not be afraid of that which is hard, because struggle builds character.” She writes that her mother “had lived as if nothing was truly impossible, and her determination — the heart of fire she carried within her . . . had set a powerful example for us. She had worked tirelessly to make it possible for me to become a woman with outsize dreams.”

Like her mother, Hirono is clearly a no-nonsense, hard worker who does not indulge in self-pity. Nowhere is this more evident than in her brief description of her 2017 battle with Stage 4 kidney cancer, which required the removal of a kidney and part of a rib. Worrying that then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) would call a vote on repealing the Affordable Care Act while she was recuperating, she writes that she was “fully prepared” to be wheeled from her hospital bed to the Senate to cast a vote. While that proved unnecessary, Hirono was back in her Capitol Hill office two weeks after surgery.

During debate on the measure she shared her personal story, and it was a watershed moment for Hirono. Previously she tried to use the “restrained civility” expected of a woman in politics and of someone with her cultural background. But the 2016 election unleashed her and motivated her to publicly take on Trump, his political appointees and her GOP Senate colleagues, prompting Trump to label her “nasty,” a term he has used to describe many other women including Nancy Pelosi, Kamala Harris and Hillary Clinton.

One of the few revelatory anecdotes in the book involves Clinton and her book about the presidential campaign, titled “What Happened.” When Hirono attended Clinton’s 70th birthday party a year after the 2016 election, she asked her to sign the book and told Clinton there were two words missing from the title. “Hillary didn’t miss a beat. ‘I know right? What the F--- Happened!’ ” she replied.

Like Clinton, Hirono doesn’t mince words when it comes to Trump and congressional Republicans. “There was no end to the cruelty, compulsive lies, and outright fraud perpetrated by Trump and his enablers. . . . Our nation had entered the Twilight Zone, a dark place filled with simpering Republican zombies . . . cowardly sycophants who had abdicated their responsibility to the American people by refusing to hold the rogue president accountable for his offenses.”

In many ways “Heart of Fire” is two books: Hirono’s courageous and vivid depiction of growing up in Hawaii as a poor immigrant, and her account of a political life, laden with details but lacking the same vibrancy and candor. Uniting the two, however, is the fire Hirono inherited from her mother, which she has used to oppose Trump and congressional Republicans. Hirono now sees herself “as a fighter in the resistance . . . intent on doing all I [can] to stop the wrongs committed against the people I had pledged to serve.”

Heart of Fire

An Immigrant Daughter’s Story

By Mazie K. Hirono

Viking.
397 pp. $28