Book: The Last Aloha by Gaellen Quinn
Not everyone intends to party at the celebration of Hawaii’s 50th Birthday of Statehood today. Hawaiian history carries a sting that most travelers will not be aware of. Despite the fact that I have visited Hawaii, I certainly had only the vaguest idea of the history of statehood until I readThe Last Aloha by Gaellen Quinn.
This meticulously researched historical novel presents the inside story via a fictional lead character, Laura Jennings, who lands in a third-generation Hawaiian missionary family after losing her father and fiancé in a carriage accident in San Francisco. She learns that these late nineteenth century families have grown wealthy in mercantile and government roles in this last generation.
Laura’s travel to Hawaii as a naive young woman gives the author plenty of opportunity for exposition as people explain the ins and outs of culture and politics in Hawaii. While this book provides education, the presentation of facts sometimes leads to awkward overloading of conversations so they are not as natural as one would hope.
Besides conveniently serving as a nanny in her Uncle’s home, he a lecherous in-law who is deeply involved in the politics of protection of American businessmen on Hawaii, Laura also becomes a nanny and close friend of Princess Ka’iulani, and later secretary to Queen Lili’uokalni, the princess’ aunt. The positions, of course, make her privy to all that is happening behind the scenes as the great powers struggle over Hawaii, and the native people get trampled by the financial power of the descendants of the first missionaries.
Appealing scenes from the islands, full of heavily scented flowers and the relaxed and mystical life of the native Hawaiians no doubt will entice the reader to visit Hawaii. However, I am betting that the book will be super controversial in Hawaii itself.
The story of how Hawaii became a state, despite its great distance from the mainland of the United States, makes me cringe, and I am not the only one. Movie producers had hoped to capitalize on the anniversary of statehood with a film about Ka’iulani, the Last Princess of Hawaii, who is an important character in this book. But the subject has inflamed the native Hawaiians and the producers have pushed back the release date several times, even though the director changed the name from Barbarian Princess. Gee, wonder why that would upset anyone?
Quinn has worked hard to cover the period honestly, and to weave real life characters in with fictional ones. It is a big job for a first time novelist, and the strain shows in some awkwardness. While I enjoyed learning the historical background, the scaffolding shows a bit to much for this to be an seamlessly smooth literary experience of the kind you get with an E. L. Doctorow novel.
Despite my reservations, I am glad that the publicist sent me this book so that I could fill in some blanks left by reading James Michener‘s Hawaii.
If you are moved to visit Hawaii and look into the history in person, you can also (perhaps) commune with the spirit of the Princess on the site of her estate, which has been replaced by the high-rise Sheraton Princess Kaiulani.
P. S. I would be remiss not to mention that in 2008, The Last Aloha was a Texas manuscript winner in historical fiction in the Texas Writers’ League contest and was a semi-finalist in the Amazon.com/Penguin Books Novel Contest.
Now it is your turn…would you like to know more about Hawaii history, or are you inclined to say, “Leave me alone with my Mai Tai on the beach?”