Summary and book reviews of Bird of Another Heaven by James Houston

Bird of Another Heaven

By James Houston

Bird of Another Heaven
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     Not Yet Rated
  • Hardcover: Mar 2007,
    352 pages.
    Paperback: Apr 2008,
    352 pages.

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Book Summary

From the author of Snow Mountain Passage, a saga of the Donner Party, comes a deeply engaging new novel, set in both our time and the late nineteenth century. It centers on a California woman, half Indian, half Hawaiian, who became consort and confidante to the last king of Hawaii.

The story is told by her great-grandson, Sheridan Brody, a Bay Area talk show host, whose life has reached an unexpected standstill. He can’t quite commit—he doesn’t know why—to his Japanese-American girlfriend and her five-year-old son. A corporate merger may soon threaten his job. But when he receives an on-air call from a woman claiming to be his grandmother, Sheridan feels compelled to uncover all he can about this previously unknown branch of his family, embarking on a quest that will change how he sees his future and his past.

What he finds, through the journals of his great-grandmother, Nani Keala (aka Nancy Callahan), and through his own investigations, is an almost mythic tale: how Nani, a shy girl from a remote Indian village, learns English at a local white rancher’s school and meets the Hawaiian king, David Kalakaua, on his grand progress by train across the United States in 1881, and returns with him to Honolulu. There, as his young ally and protégée, ever more assured and charming, she plays an integral role in his attempt to revive the monarchy and spirit of his people and, eventually, witnesses the mysterious circumstances surrounding his downfall.

Bird of Another Heaven
is rich in historical scene and character, based in part on actual events. Nani’s life unfolds against the backdrop of the opening of northern California and America’s rising ambitions in Asia and the Pacific during the 1800s. It is also a story of emotional intensity and compassion, equally compelling for Sheridan’s contemporary journey of self-discovery and the beautifully imagined journey of Nani, a woman of extraordinary power and appeal.

Excerpt
Bird of Another Heaven

Born in a tribal village in the Sierra Nevada foothills, Nani Keala is the daughter of an Indian mother and Hawaiian father. In 1881, at age 17, she joins a local group of Hawaiians traveling to Sacramento to welcome David Kalakaua, the king of Hawaii, who is passing through California at the end of his round-the-world tour.

The Words Came
Though the last ones drank until after midnight, they were all up early for the final leg. In skiffs and launches they made a small fleet coasting south with the current, a couple of dozen Hawaiians and mixed-bloods, Indian wives, some children. They pulled into the wharf at Sacramento and from there walked three blocks to the Central Pacific depot. The king’s two railroad cars, which had arrived overnight from Denver, had been shunted off to a siding where a crowd had already gathered, curious townspeople for the most part, here to get their first glimpse of a ruling
monarch.

Nani stayed close to the Kinsman as he ...

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Reviews

BookBrowse

Bird of Another Heaven starts a little slowly but picks up momentum as the two parallel stories converge. Although it never quite reach the heights of Snow Mountain Passage (pun unintended!) it is nevertheless an excellent historical novel that highlights new aspects of the well covered settlement of California, and will take most readers to places new in its exploration of the history of Hawaii.   (Reviewed by BookBrowse Review Team).

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Media Reviews
San Francisco Chronicle

The author’s admiration of and eloquent sorrow for the inexorable destruction of inherently graceful and spiritually rooted alternative ways of life are both characteristic and affecting. Akin to his characters, Houston seems committed to an honorable memory of what has gone before.

Washington Post - David Treuer

Houston has given us the story of a lifetime, filled with characters who are posed, not animated. Without an author willing to break the bones of historical fact to extract the marrow, all we are left holding in our hands is a soulfully and sensitively produced diagram of those bones, not a story that contains their true meaning.

Kirkus Reviews

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.

Publishers Weekley

Though it gets off to a slow start, Houston builds momentum as the novel's scope widens, and the historical detail is mesmerizing.

Library Journal

Although the dialog is sometimes strained, and character reactions often play to the overdramatic rather than the subtle, these are minor irritants in a strong and compelling read that fills a gap in the historical fiction of Hawaii.

Booklist - Brad Hooper

Starred Review. A vivid visitation to the past…pulls readers inexorably into its rich recesses.

Author Blurb Richard Ford
James Houston is a novelist whose work shines with profound humanity. He vividly imagines history, our residence on earth, our racial quotient, the mystery of our fragile human character as though these concerns were fiction’s truest subjects.

Author Blurb Karen Joy Fowler
A fascinating account delivered with power, precision, and a generous imagination. There is no better historical novelist working today than Jim Houston.

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Beyond the Book

James D. Houston is the author of seven previous novels and a number of nonfiction works including Farewell to Manzanar, which he coauthored with his wife, Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston. Since 1962, he and Jeanne have lived in Santa Cruz, within view of Monterey Bay, where they raised their three children. They currently live in a Victorian house once owned by Patty Read, a survivor of the Donner Party who appears in Houston's novel Snow Mountain Passage.

Houston says he had a similar experience to...

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