I LOVED LOVED Honolulu by Alan Brennert! (I think this book deserves ‘loved’ in capital letters). I received an advanced reader’s copy and put off reading it for a while, and I am so glad I finally did. Honolulu is just one of those books that sucks you in – with its story, characters, great writing – and compels you to read just one more chapter, even though it’s already 2am.
Honolulu tells the story of Regret , the only girl born to a traditional Korean family. (Korean families valued male children over females, and often gave their daughters names like Sorrow, Regret, etc.) As her name would suggest, Regret feels unwanted; while her brothers attend school, Regret is confined to small room where she learns domestic duties from her mother. Wishing to learn, Regret approaches her father, only to be beat down and berated. As a last resort, Regret secretly offers herself up as a picture bride (equivalent of a mail-order bride), only telling her parents once the match is complete. Disowned by her father, Regret travels to Hawaii to meet the rich, handsome husband promised by the matchmaker.
Stuck in steerage on a ship bound for Hawaii, Regret befriends her fellow picture brides. Upon arrival, the girls are all faced with a similar fate – the rich and handsome men they saw in the photos are really old, unattractive, and mostly poor. One of them catches the ship back to Korea, others are quickly married and carted off in different directions. Regret finds herself as a wife to a plantation worker with drinking and gambling problems, and a foul temper. Nothing she does is ever good enough, and she endures much physical abuse before choosing to leave her husband, and run away to Honolulu. In control of her life for the first time, Regret (now taking the name Jin) finds her way with hard work and the renewed friendships with the other picture brides. Through numerous tests and trials, Jin realizes the strength she never knew she had, and becomes a great immigrant success story.
In addition to spanning Jin’s entire lifetime, Honolulu is a very accurate depiction of life in 20th century Hawaii. In the epilogue, Alan Brennert explains that various events described in the novel are historically accurate. The Publisher’s Weekly criticized this aspect of the book by saying that it was too much of “an encyclopedic portrait of Hawaii in the early 1900s”, but I must disagree. I think Honolulu is a great way to learn about that part of Hawaii’s history while enjoying the story. I only wish that we read more books like this in history classes.
Alan Brennert is also the writer of Moloka’i, which was said to be a book club phenomenon, and is next on my reading list!