HONOLULU by Alan Brennert

Book Quote:

“You have endured much. You have suffered much. You will suffer more, and you will endure that as well.  Is this not what it means to be Korean?”

Book Review:

Reviewed by Katherine Petersen (MAY 22, 2009)

At least at the beginning of the 20th century, Korean fathers prized their male children as they would carry on the family name. Female children, whose sole purpose is to serve their brothers, fathers and husbands, languish without an education. This partly explains how the protagonist in this novel was named Regret. Not satisfied with her lot, Regret longs to read, write, learn English and not live in the shadow of her male family members.

She jumps at the opportunity to move to Hawaii and marry a Korean man as a “picture bride.” Rumors abound that the streets of Hawaii are paved with gold and her husband-to-be has the wealth to provide her a better life. But when she and four other Korean girls arrive in Honolulu, they find themselves promised to shabbily dressed laborers. Regret’s best friend, Sunny, opts to return to Korea immediately, but Regret and her remaining three companions, raised under Confucian strictures, resign themselves to making the best of their circumstances. Much to Regret’s dismay, her new husband gambles away his wages but still expects her to buy food and prepare meals. When Regret starts to work in the fields to afford food, he beats her for embarrassing him.

Although she finds it difficult to go against Confucian values, Regret runs away from the cane fields to Honolulu proper, taking refuge as a seamstress with a community of prostitutes. She changes her name to Jin and fits in well, mostly because she doesn’t pass judgment on anyone. She shows the depth of her strength of spirit in her willingness to buck tradition.

Through Jin, Alan Brennert offers us a way to see into the life of an immigrant woman in early twentieth century Hawaii. She represents the lives of Chinese, Koreans and Japanese alike. While in Korea under Japanese rule, Jin and many Koreans despised them. But in America, she learns to make the distinction between Japanese and Japanese-American. This is just one example of her growth from a naive girl to a strong woman in both experience and spirit. Through Jin, we also experience racial tension between “locals” (including Hawaiians and Orientals alike) and the richer whites on the island.

Alan Brennert portrays a Hawaii rich with historical detail and vivid descriptions as he did with his previous novel about Hawaii, Moloka’i. He has chosen a strong character in Jin to describe the lives of many picture brides. Some became successful and some did not; some learned as they went along and some did not; but in using a character of such inner strength, he can show us the rewards for accepting challenges, overcoming barriers and making the best of one’s circumstances. He provides a large supporting cast of friends, employers and community members of all races, giving a bit of insight from different perspectives. I loved learning about the different traditions of Jin’s young life in Korea, but the middle and end of the books sometimes got bogged down in secondary characters and details, but not enough to take away from my enjoyment. Many of the stories and characters came from real life—especially some of the most flamboyant and heroic and fans of historical fiction will drink these up with gusto.

Brennert does meticulous research, and it shows in the rich descriptions of characters and places alike. It’s as easy to imagine Jin’s home in Korea, her boat trip in steerage to Honolulu and the hut she shared with her husband in the cane fields. Brennert has built a reputation on his fluid writing style and ability to share life experiences with his readers through the eyes of his characters, and Honolulu is no exception.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-5from 448 readers
PUBLISHER: St. Martin’s Press; 1 edition (March 3, 2009)
REVIEWER: Katherine Petersen
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May 22, 2009 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , , , ,  · Posted in: Facing History, Hawaii, Reading Guide, y Award Winning Author

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