Nonfiction author McManus (The Hawaiian House Now, 2007) offers a late-19th-century drama set during the Hawaiian royal family’s fall from power.
In 1891, Eliza Dawson, the haole (Caucasian) daughter of a wealthy sugar plantation owner in Honolulu, and Ben Ahsang, the son of a prominent Chinese merchant who originally amassed his fortune in the legal opium trade, are in love. When the Hawaiian king, Kalakaua, dies, Ben’s father foresees a compromised future for Hawaiians of Chinese heritage. He sends Ben to China, where an arranged marriage awaits him. Soon after, the heartbroken 17-year-old Eliza discovers that she’s pregnant with Ben’s child. Because she insists on keeping the baby, her father bribes Abram Malveaux to marry her. Abram is a fearsome man who manages a ranch on the isolated island of Molokai, where Eliza goes on to endure treachery and tragedy. When she eventually escapes back to Oahu, she finds the island on the brink of revolution. The queen is under house arrest, and the haole landowners, descendants of the Christian missionaries, are about to succeed in a plan involving the American annexation of Hawaii. Eliza’s father sides with the Hawaiian rebels, and she becomes his secret emissary to the queen. Although Eliza’s story occasionally skirts the edge of melodrama, it nevertheless serves as an engaging vehicle for a vivid history lesson and an intimate portrait of a Hawaii on the precipice of change. McManus skillfully weaves in descriptions of Honolulu’s beauty and floral scents, the anguish of Molokai’s leper colony, and the vast intermingling of cultures on the islands (for example, Ben’s father is Chinese, his mother’s English and Hawaiian). Eliza’s narration uses intermittent, unspoken thoughts, diary entries, and unmailed letters to her best friend, the Crown Princess Ka’iulani, to move the story back and forth in time, recalling past, carefree days and exposing her present, deep sadness. A large cast of well-drawn characters, including some vile villains, adds interest and momentum.
A poignant and promising first novel.