Honolulu: A Novel

Honolulu: A Novel

by Alan Brennert

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Overview

From the bestselling author of the "dazzling historical saga" (The Washington Post), Moloka'i, comes the irresistible story of a young immigrant bride in a ramshackle town that becomes a great modern city

"In Korea in those days, newborn girls were not deemed important enough to be graced with formal names, but were instead given nicknames, which often reflected the parents' feelings on the birth of a daughter: I knew a girl named Anger, and another called Pity. As for me, my parents named me Regret."

Honolulu is the rich, unforgettable story of a young "picture bride" who journeys to Hawai'i in 1914 in search of a better life.

Instead of the affluent young husband and chance at an education that she has been promised, she is quickly married off to a poor, embittered laborer who takes his frustrations out on his new wife. Renaming herself Jin, she makes her own way in this strange land, finding both opportunity and prejudice. With the help of three of her fellow picture brides, Jin prospers along with her adopted city, now growing from a small territorial capital into the great multicultural city it is today. But paradise has its dark side, whether it's the daily struggle for survival in Honolulu's tenements, or a crime that will become the most infamous in the islands' history...

With its passionate knowledge of people and places in Hawai'i far off the tourist track, Honolulu is most of all the spellbinding tale of four women in a new world, united by dreams, disappointment, sacrifices, and friendship.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780312606343
Publisher: St. Martin''s Publishing Group
Publication date: 02/02/2010
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 464
Sales rank: 65,043
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.22(h) x 1.21(d)

About the Author

ALAN BRENNERT is the author of Moloka'i, which was a 2006-2007 BookSense Reading Group Pick and won the 2006 Bookies Award, sponsored by the Contra Costa Library, for the Book Club Book of the Year (over My Sister's Keeper, by Jodi Picoult; The Devil in the White City, by Erik Larson; and A Million Little Pieces, by James Frey). It appeared on the BookSense, Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Honolulu Advertiser, and (for 16 weeks) NCIBA bestseller lists. Alan has also won an Emmy Award for his work as a writer-producer on the television series L.A. Law and a Nebula Award for his story "MaQui." He lives in Sherman Oaks, California.

Read an Excerpt

One
When I was a young child growing up in Korea, it was said that the image of the fading moon at daybreak, re­flected in a pond or stream or even a well, resembled the speckled shell of a dragon’s egg. A dragon embodied the yang, the mascu­line principle of life, and it was thought that if a couple expecting a child prayed to the dragon’s egg, their offspring would be male. Of course, every family in those days desired a son over a daughter. Only men could carry on the family line; women were merely ves­sels by which to provide society with an uninterrupted supply of men. So every day for months before I was born, my parents would rise before dawn, carrying offerings of fresh-steamed rice cakes to the stone well behind our home, as the sky brightened and snuff ed out the stars. And they would pray to the pale freckled face of the moon floating on the water’s surface, pray that the child growing inside my mother’s womb would be a boy.
In this they were to be disappointed. On the third day of the First Moon in the Year of the Rooster, their first and only daughter was born to them. In those waning days of the Yi Dynasty, new­born girls were not deemed important enough to be graced with formal names, but were instead given nicknames. Often these repre­sented some personal characteristic: Cheerful, Pretty, Little One, Big One. Sometimes they presumed to be commandments: Chastity, or Virtue. A few—Golden Calf, Little Flower— verged on the po­etic. But too many names reflected the parents’ feelings about the birth of a daughter. I knew a girl named Anger, and another called Pity. More than a few were known as Sorrow or Sadness. And ev­eryone had heard the story of the father who named his firstborn daughter “One is Okay,” his next, “Perhaps After the Second,” the third, “Three Laughs,” and the last, “Four Shames.”
As for me, my parents named me “Regrettable”—eventually shortened to simply Regret.
Koreans seldom address one another by their given names; we believe a person’s name is a thing of intimacy and power, not to be used casually by anyone but a family member or close friend. When I was very young, Regret was merely a name to me, signi­fying nothing more than that. But as I grew older and learned it held another meaning, it became a stone weight in my heart. A call to supper became a reminder of my unfortunate presence at the dinner table. A stern rebuke by my father—“Regret, what are we to do with you?”—seemed to hint that my place in the family was impermanent. Too young to understand the real reasons, I won­dered what was wrong with me to make me so unwanted. Was I too short? I wasn’t as tall as my friend Sunny, but not nearly so short as her sister Lotus. Was I too plain? I spent hours squinting into the mirror, judging my every feature, and found them want­ing. My eyes were set too close together, my nose was too small, or maybe it was too big; my lips were thin, my ears flat. It was clear to see, I was plain and unlovely—no wonder my parents regretted my birth.
In truth, my father was merely old-fashioned and conservative, a strict adherent to Confucian ideals, one of which was the inher­ent pre ce dence of man over woman: “The wife must regard her husband as heavenly; what he does is a heavenly act and she can only follow him.” I was a girl, I would eventually marry and be­come part of someone else’s family; as such my existence was sim­ply not of the same consequence as that of my three brothers, who would carry on the family line and provide for our parents when they became old.
But I knew none of this when I was young, and instead decided it was due to the shape of my nose or the color of my eyes; and for years to come I would fret over and find fault with the girl who looked back at me from the mirror.
I have traveled far from the land of my birth, and even farther from who I was then. More than forty years and four thousand miles separate us: the girl of sixteen who took that fi rst unwitting step forward, and the woman in her sixtieth year who now, in sight of the vast Pacific, presumes to memorialize this journey in mere words. It is a journey measured not in time or distance, but in the breadth of one’s soul and the struggle of becoming.

Excerpted from Honolulu by Alan Brennert.
Copyright © 2009 by Alan Brennert.
Published in February 2010 by St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.

Reading Group Guide

Recommended Reading

Sunset in a Spider Web, adapted by Virginia Olsen Baron and translated by Minja Park Kim, contains many lovely sijo poems of old Korea by the kisaeng Hwang Chini and others.

The Trembling of a Leaf by W. Somerset Maugham collects some of his short stories set in the South Seas, including "Rain." It's worth noting that although Maugham later spoke unflatteringly of his bawdy rooming-house neighbor, May Thompson's fictional counterpart Sadie is the most winning character in the story and the author clearly intended for her to win the reader's sympathies as well. Maugham was too fine a writer to let his personal animosity get in the way of a great character.

Think of a Garden and Other Plays by John Kneubuhl showcases three stage plays set in Hawai'i and the author's native Samoa (where his parents, who owned a trading post on Pago Pago, met Maugham and May on their rainy stopover). Kneubuhl was a preeminent playwright on Polynesian/Pacific themes, as well as a prolific writer for television in the 1950s and 60s.

And for anyone curious about modern Honolulu in the years after Jin's story ends, I highly recommend My Time in Hawaii by Victoria Nelson, a beautifully wrought memoir of "her time" in Honolulu, spanning the years from 1969 to 1981.

Reading Group Questions

1. How do you feel about Jin's decision to leave Korea? What might you have done in her place? How do you regard the various decisions she made after learning the truth about her fiancé in Hawai'i?

2. How would you interpret the poem by Hwang Chini on page 26 within the context of the novel?

3. Korea and Hawai'i were both small countries, in strategic locations, that came to be dominated by more powerful nations. In what other ways were the Korean and Hawaiian societies of the time both similar and different?

4. Compare and contrast the lives of a Korean kisaeng and an Iwilei prostitute.

5. How does the author weave real people and events into the lives of his fictional characters, and how do they contribute to your understanding of Jin's circumstances? If you were already familiar with any of the historical figures, how do you view them after reading the novel? For example, the author is uncertain of May Thompson's fate in real life—what do you think she might have done after leaving Honolulu? What do you think about the Governor's decision to commute the sentences of Lt. Massie and the others convicted in Joe Kahahawai's death?

6. How have Americans' attitudes toward immigrants changed—or not changed—since the 1900s?

7. The biography Passage of a Picture Bride describes its real-life subject as having a "positive outlook and broad-mindedness, unusual traits among Korean women" of that time. How does this statement apply to Jin and her fellow picture brides?

8. What binds Jin and her "Sisters of Kyongsang" together, other than the kye? What purpose do they serve in each other's lives?

9. What is the significance of the patchwork quilts not just to Jin's life, but to the life of Hawai'i itself?

10. At the end of the novel, Jin says "Hawai'i has often been called a melting pot, but I think of it more as a ‘mixed plate'—a scoop of rice with gravy, a scoop of macaroni salad, a piece of mahi-mahi, and a side of kimchi. Many different tastes share the plate, but none of them loses its individual flavor, and together they make up a uniquely ‘local' cuisine. This is also, I believe, what America is at its best—a whole great than the sum of its parts." What do you believe? What is gained and what is lost—both in Hawai'i and in the U.S. as a whole—in becoming a multicultural society? How might this be particularly relevant to Native Hawaiians?

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