Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Honolulu: A Novel by Alan Brennert

  • Hardcover: 368 pages

  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press;

  • Author: Alan Brennert

Scared yet excited, fatigued but energized, Regret and a group of young picture brides from Korea look out from a cabin window as the old ship they had boarded in Yokohama, Japan pulls into the Port of Honolulu, Hawai'i. Each girl expects to see a young, nice-looking gentleman of means (as per photos received) so imagine their shock and horror even when they discover that instead of handsome young men they are greeted by a motley group of wizend older men with skin as tough as hide revealing that the owner of that skin was not a scholarly man who had a white-collar job but one that had to work hard in the open. One of the girls is so overcome with disappointment and horror that she uses whatever money she has left to board the ship back to Japan and then Korea. The other picture brides are not so lucky and they, including Regret, disembark the ship, marry the men waiting for them and spend the next few years enduring the tough life of sugarcane plantation workers in Hawai'i.

After Regret is beaten up by her husband several times (and miscarries due to the beatings) she runs away to Honolulu , shrugs off her unfortunate moniker "Regret", takes on a new name "Jin" (gem) and in her new avatar she becomes a seamstress, mending clothes for hookers in order to keep herself afloat. Jin's story follows a lot of twists and turns not unlike her adopted country and Brennert does an excellent job of tying Jin's story to the historical events in Hawai'i at that time.

Although this is historical "fiction", Brennert's book feels meticulously and exquisitely researched...it is filled with cultural details of that period - songs, food, clothes, historical events and even historical figures. I have, however, just one quibble with an incident that occurs in the early part of the book:

When Regret was beaten up by her husband for the second time she was advised to go to the Pastor of the Korean Methodist church for resolution, I wonder why Brennert didn't have her go to the local Dong-Hoi instead. According to histories written about the plantations in Honolulu, the Korean plantation workers had banded together to form a mutual aid society called Dong-Hoi with, at its head a judge (voted in by the workers) called Dong-chang. THe Dong-chang ruled in marital disputes and a man beating his wife was seldom tolerated. Also, the Dong-Hoi did not encourage gambling and drinking, infact, they prohibited it, so I am not sure how Mr. Noh, Regret's husband was painted by Brennert as a gambler and drunkard.

But aside from that quibble, "Honolulu" is a wonderfully-written tribute to the people of Hawai'i and while it is primarily the story a story of Jin, the Korean picture bride who had to learn to throw off the Confucian notion that women were worthless, it is also the story of how Asian, Portuguese, Spanish and Filipino workers were brought to Hawai’i by the sugar barons who needed laborers to work on the plantations, thus sowing the seeds for the multi-ethnic society that Hawai'i is today and that America is mirroring. Brennert likes to say, the story of Honolulu is in many ways the story of Barack Obama, and the story of America as well.

Finally, Hawai'i, at some point or another figures on everyone's travel plans...rather than just arming yourself with the usual guide book, why don't you grab a copy of "Honolulu" and learn, through the most wonderful and evocative writing, the history of Hawai'i? Reading and knowing the history of a place can add a different dimension to one's travel there.

This is Alan Brennert's second novel featuring Hawai'i. The first, was an equally wonderful book titled "Moloka'i", which I would recommend very highly too

And now here's a dessert talked about several times in the book. Enjoy!

Pineapple Cream Pie

The filling for this pineapple pie is made with canned crushed pineapple, cream, egg yolks, and sugar. The pie is topped with an egg white meringue.

  • 1/2 cup of butter
  • 1 cup of sugar
  • 1 (15 ounce) can crushed pineapple
  • 3 egg yolks
  • 3 tablespoons cornstarch
  • 1 cup of milk or sweet cream
  • 3 egg whites
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • Baked 9 inch pie crust

    FILLING: Mix butter, sugar, pineapple and egg yolks in a saucepan. Dissolve cornstarch in milk (or cream) and blend into pineapple mixture. Cook over low heat, stirring constantly, until thick. Pour mixture into a cooked and cooled pie shell.
    MERINGUE TOPPING: Beat egg whites until frothy, then slowly beat in 2 tablespoons of sugar. Beat until the mixture forms stiff peaks. Spread meringue over the pie and bake at 350 degrees for about 10 minutes, or until meringue is lightly browned.


    Juhi said...

    I love your book review as always.

    i wish all the wonderful books you review were available in India without paying astronomical shipping on amazon.

    Zibilee said...

    I've heard a lot about this book, but yours is the first review I have seen. It sounds like just the type of book I love, historical fiction set in a foreign country. I am glad you enjoyed it, despite the small quibbles. Also, the fact that you added that recipe is awesome.

    karmic said...

    Hi Lotus! How are you? You truly pick the most interesting books to read and share with us. Learn so much from reading your posts. I did not know much about Hawaii beyond few basic facts and thanks to you learned a lot more.
    Any reason why Regret was named so by her parents? Is that explained?
    As for Brennert's ignorance of Dong-Hoi, maybe he wants to use it to drive the plot narrative? Also given the status of women during that time, would all women have gone to the Dong-Hoi? Would men abide by the rulings? Were the Dong-Hoi always headed by a man, or was it by committee? Please pardon my ignorance here.
    How were the rulings of the Dong-Hoi balanced with the Confucian belief of women being lesser? Wouldn't some marital disputes be resolved in favor of the women? Sorry I know this is not relevant to the plot as such, but it did get me thinking.
    Reading and knowing the history of a place while traveling there is really cool. I am sure you do that too.
    And the dessert sounds quite yummy!
    Truly enjoyed reading the review.

    Lotus Reads said...

    Hi Juhi

    I am always happy to have you visit Lotus Reads! Have you heard of "Book Depository.com"? They might be just a wee bit more in price than Amazon, but they provide free shipping around the world. You should check them out! How's the weather where you are? Hot probably, huh?

    Lotus Reads said...

    Hello Zibilee!

    I thought of you several times as I read this novel because this is definitely a book you would devour! My review did not do justice to the book, none at all. There are so many lovely details in "Honolulu" (especially about village life in Korea and then life in Hawai'i in its glam years..the 1920's)and the writing is so beautiful and evocative, but it requires a more indepth review to truly bring all of this out. I can't wait to read what you have to say about it when you get around to reading the book!

    Lotus Reads said...

    Hi Sanjay, how are you buddy?

    I did not know much about Hawaii beyond few basic facts and thanks to you learned a lot more.Ditto for me! I barely knew anything about Hawai'i before I picked up Brennert's "Honolulu"...I will never look at that state the same way again now that I know its history.

    Any reason why Regret was named so by her parents? Is that explained?Well, she is called "Regret" because that is exactly how her parents, especially her father, felt about having a daughter. Not unlike a lot of agrarian societies in the East, a daughter simply meant one more mouth to feed. Daughters were not allowed to leave the house or to receive an education, they were just chattel to be passed on as a working slave from the parents home into the home of the inlaws. Very sad.

    Sanjay, I don't know a whole lot about Dong-Hoi either, but I did read in a history book about planatations (will go look up the name now) that it definitely did not encourage alcohol, gambling or wife beating and yes, it was always headed by a man. I am glad you are showing this interest in the Dong Hoi because I don't think too many people even know it existed. Will definitely look up the title of the book for you.

    Lotus Reads said...

    Glad you like the recipe...it's amazing how almost every book seems to have atleast one particular food mentioned over and over. In this case, one of the Hawai'ian ladies that Regret knows would whip up a Pineapple Cream Pie on every special occasion....I thought it apt to include the recipe as it was so much a part of the book.

    Marilyn said...

    I have presented you with the Kreativ Blogger Award...

    Just to let you know I really appreciate your blog...

    All the best from South Korea..


    Unknown said...

    Sounds like a good book. I'll look for it it here. By the way, have you read The Island by Victoria Hislop? It was quite a good read...historical fiction but very nice.

    CocoDivaDog said...

    Hi Girl,
    I love historical fiction, esp. when it is well-written.
    Right now I am reading some other titles that are job-related.
    Will come back soon to get some ideas for summer reading.
    As always, it's so refreshing to visit your blog.

    Lotus Reads said...

    @Marilyn ~ Thank you so much! Thank you also for your amazing posts on South Korea...I'm always excited to see what you are going to write about next!

    @Angela ~ No, I haven't read "The Island"...what historical era/event is it based on? I'm intrigued, especially because you recommend it.

    @Dog Girl ~ A big,big thank you to you for being such a loyal and faithful reader of my blog. GOod luck with the work-related stuff...not always the most entertaining stuff to read, but necessary. I haven't finished with the historical fiction genre yet....coming up are two wonderful giveaways, so stay tuned!

    Um Naief said...

    this sounds like a great book...

    CG said...

    I will suggest this book at my next book club get together. Looks like a page turner. Thank you for the review.

    Lotus Reads said...

    @Um Naief ~ Hello,been meaning to ask you...are you on FB?

    @CG ~ Excellent idea! Moloka'i, Brennert's previous novel was a huge hit with book clubs, I am pretty certain that "Honolulu" will be too. Thanks so much for the visit!

    zbtjkarapilot said...

    I have reserved this one for a future read in 2009. Thanks.

    Lisa Johnson said...

    I love a book with food! I'm intrigued! And I may try this dessert. ; )