Excerpt from Moloka'i by Alan Brennert, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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by Alan Brennert

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    Sep 2003, 384 pages
    Oct 2004, 384 pages

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"Miss Wallis? A moment, please?" Normally quite unflappable, today the older woman looked wan and shaken, almost as if she were about to cry. "Students, I have a . . . an announcement. It is with great sadness that I must tell you that our king"–her voice broke as she said it–"King Kalakaua . . . is dead."

She seemed about to elaborate–then, unable to go on, simply said, "Under the circumstances, Principal Scott has dismissed classes for the day." And she hurried on to the next classroom, the impact of her news rolling in wave after wave through each grade of the primary school.

Students slowly filtered out of the schoolhouse. Rain was falling in a gray mist, the skies seeming to weep along with the people Rachel encountered in the streets. Stunned and grieving, they gathered in small groups from which rose a spontaneous, collective wail unlike anything Rachel had ever heard before–a deep woeful cry that seemed to come from a hundred hearts at once. Its raw anguish frightened her, and she ran home to find both Mama and Papa in tears as well. Rachel, for whom death was still just a word, tried to comfort them, though not quite understanding why: "It's all right, Mama. Don't cry, Papa." Dorothy took her daughter in her arms and wept, and soon Rachel began to feel that she should be crying too, and so she did.

The king had left in November on a goodwill trip to the United States– Hawai'i's most important trading partner and the homeland of most its resident foreigners–and for weeks his subjects had been awaiting his return aboard the USS Charleston from San Francisco. But this morning the city's official lookout, "Diamond Head Charlie," spotted the Charleston steaming toward Honolulu with its yards acockbill, its flags at half-mast . . . which could mean only one thing. The news was telephoned from Diamond Head and quickly spread across the city like a shadow across the sun; the festive banners and bunting put up in anticipation of Kalakaua's return were quickly torn down and replaced with solemn black crepe.

The king's body lay in state in 'Iolani Palace for the next fifteen days, during which time nearly every resident of Honolulu, and many from the neighbor islands, came to pay their respects. The Kalamas were six among thousands who queued up outside the palace for hours so that they might be able to briefly file past their monarch's casket.

The king had succumbed, it was now known, to a haole sickness called Bright's Disease. Old-timers in the crowd found this a melancholy echo of what had befallen Kamehameha II and his queen, both of whom had died after contracting measles on a trip to England. The first of the haole diseases had sailed into Hawai'i on the smiles and charm of Captain Cook's crew: syphilis and gonorrhea. Others soon followed: cholera, influenza, tuberculosis, mumps, diphtheria. One outbreak of smallpox alone took six thousand lives. Hawaiians, living in splendid isolation for five centuries, had no resistance to these new plagues that rode in on the backs of commerce and culture. Before Cook's arrival the native population of Hawai'i was more than a quarter of a million people; a hundred years later, it had plummeted to fewer than sixty thousand.

Kalakaua's people were mourning more than the passing of their king.

No one understood this better than Henry, who in his lifetime had now seen the deaths of four kings. As he and his family finally entered the palace they heard choirs chanting dirges, the ritual laments echoing throughout the vast ornate halls. But in the flower-decked throne room, a dignified silence prevailed. Flanking the coffin were twenty somber attendants holding royal staffs that looked to Rachel like spindly palm trees sprouting feathers instead of fronds. The casket, carved of native woods, was adorned with a silver crown and draped with a golden feather cloak, bright as sunlight. As the Kalamas approached it they now saw, behind thick plate glass, the familiar whiskered profile of David Kalakaua, his head pillowed, looking as if he were merely asleep.

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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