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Well-studied 'Honolulu' spans 60 years


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POSTED: Sunday, March 08, 2009

Alan Brennert's latest novel, “;Honolulu,”; is a well-researched and deftly written tale that spans 60 years and ranges successfully from Korea to Waipahu to Iwilei, back to Korea and then back to Honolulu. For sheer readability, it's a hit and is likely to be a best-seller, just like his previous book, “;Molokai.”;

               

     

 


        ”;Honolulu”;

by Alan Brennert

       

(St. Martins Press, $25)

       

 

       

In that work, Brennert won mostly favorable reviews (including the praise of Oprah Winfrey) for telling the story of Rachel Kalama, a young girl growing up in the 1890s in Hawaii who is suddenly exiled to Kalaupapa, where she must find a new family of friends to survive.

In the new book, it's 1914 and the heroine is Jin, a Korean picture bride who also leaves her family behind for a new, not always so pleasant life in Hawaii. Arriving on a boat with dozens of other picture brides, Jin finds herself married to an alcoholic, abusive plantation worker. Through the decades, though, she not only survives, but thrives, eventually finding true love, financial success and the blessings of a real family. But it's not easy; no immigrant story ever is.

Running away from the plantation and forced to hide from her husband, Jin first lands in Iwilei at a time when it was Honolulu's red-light district. With a combination of moxie, innocence and natural friendliness, she manages to survive without falling into anything more sinful than sharing a room with a woman who would become one of the Pacific's most notorious prostitutes, May Thompson, the real-life model for Sadie Thompson in the Somerset Maugham short story “;Rain.”;

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Brennert's knack is to again and again work famous historical figures into Jin's life without ever having it feel forced. As Jin slowly adapts to life in the city, she becomes friends with famous beachboys, including Duke Kahanamoku; Chang Apana, the Honolulu policeman who was the model for Charlie Chan; and Joseph Kahahawai, the young Hawaiian murdered during the Massie affair.

You won't be distracted, though, because the focus stays on Jin's story, and it's an adventure-romance-history tale so nicely written that you won't worry that Brennert is a former Emmy Award-winning Hollywood screenwriter who gets most of his local history from books and other people, whom he graciously credits at the end of the novel.

In Honolulu, Jin and her fellow picture brides—Beauty, Jade Moon and Wise Pearl—all suffer through the ups and downs of life, love and the changing economic fortunes that all immigrants have to work through in strange lands. Jin works as a seamstress and restaurant helper and eventually gets her own clothing business. But it's her hard-earned education, happy second marriage and American citizenship that she's proudest of. “;I am proud to be able to finally call myself an American, as proud as I am of my Korean heritage—and of this special place I call home, Honolulu,”; she says near the end of the book. And then there's the success of her children, who grow up to be a businesswoman, an engineer and a high-school principal.

“;I have no regrets,”; she says.

You won't, either, if you spend some time with this book. Brennert has a good eye for places we can't see anymore: plantation life before the unions gained power; Chinatown when it was all tenements; Waikiki before the high-rises started going up. And it's clear he has real affection for the little people and places he so vividly brings to life. He's not just using historic Honolulu as a place to set a novel; he's bringing it to life for people who haven't had the chance to imagine it before.