Thursday, April 28, 2011

Hawaii's Story by Hawaii's Queen

As I may have mentioned, I've become a bit obsessed about the history of Hawaii after reading Unfamiliar Fishes, by Sarah Vowell. Vowell mentioned this autobiography by Queen Liliuokalani several times in her book, so I went searching for it on Kindle.

Liliuokalani, Hawaii's last queen, was a fascinating woman. She was the child of Hawaiian royalty, educated by New England missionaries in their boarding school. She had the rituals and traditions of Hawaii drilled out of her in favor of Christianity and Victorian morals. The pictures of her and her family make me laugh. She is a beautiful Hawaiian woman, with dark skin and black hair, dressed to the nines in stiff Victorian attire - corsets and shiny satins and bustles aplenty. Her husband, the Prince Consort John Owen Dominis, was white, but he adopted the English attire as well - a George V beard, long coat, sashes and sword.

Liliuokalani's life was pretty amazing. As a member of the ruling family, she traveled the islands extensively, visiting her subjects. She also crossed the United States, met with presidents and legislators, and went to England to help Queen Victoria celebrate her Golden Jubilee.

It was while she was in England, her brother, the King, was forced by the white missionaries, to sign a new constitution that ceded almost all control of the Hawaiian government to them. In Liliuokalani's telling, this was a travesty and miscarriage of justice, which it truly was. But when you read Vowell's account, you realize that there was more to it. King Kalakaua was fairly corrupt, accepting bribes from the white plantation owners in exchange for land and water rights and opium import licenses. Still, what the whites did to take over the government was wrong.

When Liliuokalani ascended the throne after her brother's death, she attempted to change the constitution to restore power to the monarchy. Her actions were entirely legal according to the constitution her brother had signed, but the Missionary Party saw her as a threat, and with the help of the US ambassador, forced her to give up the throne. They arrested her and threatened to execute her supporters with treason if she didn't abdicate. The ambassador's actions were entirely outside the law, but it didn't matter. Hawaiian sugar and fruit had become entirely too valuable to the US, and the white plantation owners were entirely too rich for the course of action to be undone.

Liliuokalani was kept imprisoned in the Iolani Palace for almost a year before being released to house arrest for even longer. Once she had been freed by the president of the provisional government, she traveled to the US to plead Hawaii's case with Congress and the president. She carried with her a petition signed by tens of thousands of Hawaiians, all of whom had been denied the right to vote by the constitution, protesting Hawaii's annexation by the US. Unfortunately, her efforts were to no avail. Congress voted against annexation, but the president jammed it through via a joint resolution that didn't require the same number of votes as an annexation treaty.

Liliuokalani's book ends before the joint resolution passed, which is sad. She's hopeful that the end that her people's wishes will be heard by the American government. Too bad it wasn't. Native Hawaiians have been left with almost no land and no money, kind of like the Native Americans the white people screwed over.


After reading so much about Hawaii, I am desperate to go there, not for the beaches, but for the history. The Hawaiian government seems to have done a good job of preserving historic locations, and I'd love to visit the schools and churches founded by the missionaries, as well as the Iolani palace.

I'm going to start saving my pennies.


I read this book on the recommendation of Wendi, and I'm so glad I did. I've become slightly obsessed with Hawaii after reading Sarah Vowell's Unfamiliar Fishes, so I was eager to read something more about the state's history.

Molokai'i, the island, was where the Hawaiian government, under the influence of the New England Missionaries, set up an encampment for people who had leprosy, now called Hansen's Disease. In its early days, the peninsula really was a brutal prison, surrounded on three sides by rough seas and on the fourth by some of the tallest sea cliffs in the world. The early patients had to pretty much fend for themselves, building their own shelters and foraging their own food.

Molokai'i, the book, chronicles the life of Rachel, who is ripped from her parents at age six and sent to the Molokai'i encampment after her sister kind of accidentally outs her as having leprosy. Hawaiians seemed to be particularly vulnerable to the disease, and Hawaiian children even more so. Parents would hide the condition as well as they could, some even running away from home and living in the jungle with their children, to avoid capture and exile to Molokai'i.

The book combines history and fiction quite well. Rachel and her companions in exile are fiction, but Father Damien, the first priest to volunteer to care for the patients, and other doctors and caretakers are real. It is based on the combined histories and accounts of actual patients who lived on the island.

I had a hard time getting started at first - the idea of having a child snatched from her family because of a disease and then sent to live among strangers far away was too much for me. I considered not finishing the book, but I'm glad I did. I became completely caught up in the life of Rachel and the others she met in exile. Parts of the book are horrific, others are tragic, and still others are absolutely beautiful.

I rarely read fiction, but this is one of the best novels I've read in ages. I didn't want it to end, and when it did, I was in tears, but in a good way.

Monday, April 4, 2011

More Michael Connelly

After finishing The Lincoln Lawyer and enjoying it, I decided to read more Michael Connelly books. I downloaded The Reversal and The Brass Verdict. As with The Lincoln Lawyer both are quick, fun reads. Mickey Haller is again the main character - a defense lawyer practicing out of his car. He goes through the same struggles of conscience, always managing to end up doing the right thing. Again, I saw the plot twists coming, but that didn't dampen my enjoyment.

Connelly has a series of books staring one of the characters in the books, investigator Harry Bosch, that I want to read next. But first I need to work my way through my current stack of books.

Unfamiliar Fishes

I've long been a fan of Sarah Vowell, and my girl crush was only deepened by her turn at Violet in "The Incredibles." I've had the pleasure of hearing her read a few times. She was in town to read this Saturday, but I didn't make it to the book store.

I was thrilled when I heard that she had a new book coming out - Unfamiliar Fishes. I pre-ordered it through Kindle and started reading it as soon as it downloaded to my iPhone. (I don't actually have a Kindle - yet.)

I was disappointed in her last book, The Wordy Shipmates, which was dry and hard to read, especially compared to Assassination Vacation, which was a light-hearted romp through the odd topic of presidential assassinations. So I had great hopes that this new book would be a return to Vowell at her best.

And while it is world's better than The Wordy Shipmates, this new book falls short of Assassination Vacation.

The topic is fascinating: the arrival of New England missionaries in Hawaii in the mid-1800s. But there isn't as much room for humor. The clash of the two cultures was inevitable and had mixed results.

On the one hand, the missionaries managed the incredible task of creating a written version of the strictly oral Hawaiian language. They then translated books into Hawaiian and taught the natives to read. Within decades of the missionaries' arrival, Hawaii had a literacy rate of 80 percent, higher than that of the United States.

But while the Americans were educating the Hawaiians, they were spreading disease and wiping out the native culture. By converting the natives to Christianity, they encouraged them to turn their backs on native culture and tradition - such as their own religion and the hula. They had particular success with the children of the ruling families. As the elders died out, the Christian-educated children took over, changing the culture even further.

It's an interesting book and an interesting story. And it's made me want to go to Hawaii, but not for the beaches and surfing. I want to visit the historical markers and locations that Vowell describes.