Book Review: Honolulu by Alan Brennert
I first became fully aware of Hawaii and the remarkable history and people of these remote Pacific islands by reading James Michener’s exhaustively comprehensive historical novel Hawaii (this was some time in the 1990’s– many years after the book was written and popular). I was fortunate enough to be able to visit the islands myself in 2001 and thus was thrilled to come across Alan Brennert’s lyrical and romantic Honolulu— a very well-researched historical novel about the lives of Korean “picture brides” who were lured to Hawaii to marry (site unseen) Korean men who had come to the Hawaiian islands (then the sovereign country Hawaii) to serve as laborers on Hawaii’s sugar and pineapple plantations. The book is ably arrated throughout in the first person by Jin, a young Korean woman who felt she was treated as less than a slave by her family’s adherence to Confucian customs which severely limit women’s roles.
Covering a time span from 1914 to 1957 this sweeping novel covers many of the events of Hawaii’s history. What is particularly impressive is Brennert’s method of weaving the real life stories of particular historical people into his narrative. The stories of May Thompson, the no-nonsense Honolulu prostitute who was the inspiration for the character with that same name in Somerset Maugham’s RAIN and of the real life Honolulu policeman who was the inspiration for the movies’ Charlie Chan in particular add resonance to Brennert’s tale. In a lengthy author’s note in the appendix Brennert provides an exhaustive bibliography; clearly Brennert’s resonant story telling is the result of considerable research. If you have any interest at all in Hawaii or in Korean Americans, Honolulu is Highly Recommended.