For those who wonder what life was like in Hawaii before it became a vacation paradise, Alan Brennert’s novel “Honolulu” (St. Martin’s Press, 2009) takes readers on a journey through the islands’ colonial days, when inhabitants were challenged by untamed terrain, rough characters and conflicting agendas for making a living. Only the resourceful survived.
In the early 1900s in Korea, Regret, a young girl whose name reflects the culture’s male-dominated society, desires that which is denied to girls: the privilege of learning to read. She acquires the skill through determination. At 17, Regret becomes a “picture bride” for a Korean bachelor residing in Hawaii, joining other brides-to-be on the passage to a new life. On their arrival, the girls’ high expectations turn to disillusionment when they meet their betrothed, who are older, poorer laborers – not at all what they had envisioned. Regret (who now calls herself Jin) marries an embittered plantation worker who turns out to be an abusive alcoholic.
Escaping the oppressive life of a sugar-cane plantation worker, Jin seeks a better life in Honolulu. With no formal education, she relies on her sewing skills, learned from her mother during “thimble time.” Her friends and supporters are drawn from mixed cultures, including Japanese, Chinese, Filipinos, fellow Koreans and native Hawaiians struggling to improve their lives alongside her.
Brennert interweaves his fictional account with historical facts and people. One of Jin’s first friends is May Thompson, a prostitute whose bawdy personality became the basis for the character Sadie Thompson, created by author Somerset Maugham. Another trusted friend is Chang Apana, a Honolulu police detective whose claim to fame is his singlehanded arrest of 40 men at one time. The character of Charlie Chan is reputed to be based on the legendary Apana. Readers will encounter Queen Lili’uokalani near the end of her illustrious reign, as well as the Waikiki beach boys, including famed Olympic surfer Duke Kahanamoku.
Along with excellent characterization, Brennert manages to incorporate pertinent historical events affecting Jin, her fellow picture brides and early Hawaiian settlers. The author highlights the Japanese annexation of Korea in 1910 to secure their rice and bread-basket capabilities and the Oriental Exclusion Act of 1924, passed by the U.S. Congress as an attempt to stem Asian immigration. Brennert neglects, however, to address the attack on Pearl Harbor and its effect on the local people, a pivotal event in Honolulu’s history.
Jin’s story spans more than 40 years, a journey measured not in time but in her inspiring struggles to become a person of value.
Los Altos resident Karen Bonke is an avid reader, a member of the Newcomer’s Book Club and founder of a book club for residents of Creekside Oaks.