Later, when memory was all she had to sustain her, she would come to cherish it: Old Honolulu as it was then, as it would never be again. To a visitor it must have seemed a lush garden of fanciful hybrids: a Florentine-style palace shaded by banyan and monkeypod trees; wooden storefronts flourishing on dusty streets, cuttings from America's Old West; tall New England church steeples blooming above the palm and coconut groves. To a visitor it must have seemed at once exotic and familiar; to five-year-old Rachel it was a playground, and it was home.
Certain things stood out in memory, she couldn't say why: the weight and feel of a five-cent hapa'umi coin in her pocket; the taste of cold Tahiti lemonade on a hot day; palm fronds rustling like locusts high above, as she and her brothers played among the rice paddies and fishponds of Waikiki. She remembered taking a swim, much to her mother's dismay, in the broad canals of Kapi'olani Park; she could still feel the mossy bottom, the slippery stones beneath her feet. She remembered riding the trolley cars with her sister up King Streetthe two of them squeezed in amidst passengers carrying everything from squid to pigs, chickens to Chinese laundrymules and horses exuberantly defecating as they dragged the tram along in their wake. Rachel's eyes popped at the size of the turds, longer than her arm, and she giggled when the trolley's wheels squished them underneath.
But most of all, most clearly of all, she remembered Steamer Daybecause that was when her father came home.
Is today Steamer Day?"
"No." Rachel's mother handed her a freshly cooked taro root. "Here. Peel."
Rachel nimbly stripped off the soft purple skin, taking care not to bruise the stem itself, and looked hopefully at her mother. "Is tomorrow Steamer Day?"
Dorothy Kalama, stern-faced at the best of times, shot her daughter an exasperated look. "How do I know? I'm standing lookout on Koko Head, that's where you think I am?" With a stone pestle she pounded a slice of peeled taro into a smooth hard paste, then shrugged. "Could be another week, anyway, before he comes."
"Oh, no, Mama." They'd received a letter from Papa exactly five weeks ago, mailed in Samoa, informing them he'd be leaving for home in a month; and Rachel knew for a fact that the crossing took no more than a week. "Two thousand, two hundred and ninety miles from Samoa to Honolulu," she announced proudly.
Her mother regarded her skeptically. "You know how big is a mile?"
Rachel thought a moment, her round chubby face sober in reflection, then stretched her arms as wide as she could. Dorothy laughed, but before she could respond there was an explosion of boy-noise from outside.
"I hate you! Go 'way!"
"You go 'way!"
Rachel's brothers, Benjamin and JamesKimo to everyone but Mama, who disapproved of all but Christian namesroughhoused their way up the front steps and into the house. The sparsely furnished wood-frame home was nearly one large open room: living and dining areas on one side, stove, sink, and cupboards on the other; a tiny corridor led to a triad of tiny bedrooms. Pummeling each other with pulled punches, the boys skidded across a big mat woven from pandanus leaves, Kimo's legs briefly akimbo, like a wishbone in mid-wish.
"You're a big bully!" Ben accused Kimo.
"You're a big baby!" Kimo accused Ben.
Dorothy scooped up two wet handfuls of taro skin and lobbed them at her sons. In moments the boys were sputtering out damp strips of purple taro as Dorothy stood before them, hands on hips, brown eyes blazing righteously.
"What's wrong with you! Fighting on the Sabbath! Now clean your faces and get ready for church, or else!"
"Kimo started it!"
This excerpt ends on page 17 of the hardcover edition, at the end of chapter 1. Copyright © 2003 by Alan Brennert.
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From NYT bestselling author Ann Leary
The captivating story of an unconventional New England family.
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