California during the Gold Rush and Hawaii on the verge of annexation as a U.S. territory provide a rich dual backdrop for Houston’s colorful ninth novel.
Its narrative is also a double story. A contemporary one, set in northern California in 1987, concerns the search conducted by radio talk-show host Sheridan “Dan” Brody into his family’s patchwork origins—after elderly Rosa Wadell, the grandmother Dan has never met, calls in on the air and begins the unearthing of their people’s fabulous history. Rosa’s story funnels into the one contained in the daily journal kept faithfully by her mother, Nancy Callahan. This tale is in turn linked to the well-known story of the 1891 visit to San Francisco made by Hawaii’s last king, David Kalakaua—on which journey, Dan learns, the monarch was accompanied by his “standard bearer” and consort (and, presumably, lover) Nani Keala: aka Nancy Callahan. The tumbling revelations include a wrenching portrayal of Nani/Nancy (“part white, part Indian, part Hawaiian”) adrift among several cultures; the story of her father Keala, an intrepid adventurer who left the Islands branded with the mark of Cain and found his mission and his fortune by joining the westward march and empire-building of gold-hunter John Sutter; and the increasingly complex negotiations between the cagey King David and representatives of Peabody Trade and Maritime, the company that embodies American pursuit of economic gain through the acquisition of foreign resources. The pivotal event here is the recovery of a missing sound recording of the Hawaiian monarch’s voice, made during his American visit: a priceless historical artifact, and a literal incarnation of his culture’s worship of communal values and respect for its dead—a plaintive reminder that “all our stories must be told.”
A distinguished successor to Houston’s superb fictionalization of the Donner Party ordeal, Snow Mountain Passage (2001), and compelling evidence that he’s one of the best historical novelists working today.