BookBrowse Reviews Bird of Another Heaven by James Houston

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Bird of Another Heaven

by James Houston

Bird of Another Heaven by James Houston X
Bird of Another Heaven by James Houston
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     Not Yet Rated
  • First Published:
    Mar 2007, 352 pages
    Paperback:
    Apr 2008, 352 pages

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From the author of Snow Mountain Passage comes an engaging new novel, set in both our time and the late nineteenth century

Loosely inspired by the visit of David Kalakaua the last King of Hawaii, to San Francisco, Houston tells of Nani Keala, the King's lover. Nani's story plays out against the backdrop of the Californian Gold Rush and the annexation of Hawaii by the USA. Through her life we are introduced to a full cast of 19th century Californian and Hawaiian historical characters including John Sutter, founder of Sacramento, and David Kalakaua, known as the the "Merrie Monarch"; we see what life was like on the missions and rancherias in California, explore Hawaiian traditions such as hula and get a fly on the wall view of Hawaiian court intrigue.

A parallel story rests on the popular contemporary theme of discovering ones roots, and explores how our genealogy shapes us. Dan's life has stalled when his previously unknown grandmother contacts him and tells him of his great-grandmother, Nani. Through Nani's journals, Dan explores a genealogy he never suspected, learns of his family's involvement in the underhanded annexation of Hawaii by the USA which, in the late 19th century, having expanded from sea to shining sea, focused its acquisitive eye on the Pacific. In the process, he recognizes parallels between the past and his own life as the host of a small radio station being overrun by a corporate conglomerate, and finds purpose in his life.

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 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. Its weakness is best summed up by the reviewer for the Washington Post who writes that, "The novel itself is pliant and generous to a fault, feeding whatever hunger the main characters might have [but] there is no sense that struggle leads to more struggle or that the characters might at any time be shielded from, even ignorant of, their own motivations or desires. The result is a story that is too tender and pure to be toothsome, filled with modern sentiments and sensitivities rather than those of the actual past."

Background: When Houston was researching Snow Mountain Passage, about the Donner Party and the 19th century settlement of the American west, he came across references to Hawaiian sailors who helped John Sutter build his fort in the Sacramento Valley, a first destination and resting place for the trans-continental wagon trains. Houston became fascinated by the idea that, at the time these early wagon parties were making their way across the Sierra Nevada Mountains, Hawaiians were already in California (along with Chinese, Mexicans and, of course, the native tribes who'd been in the region for thousands of years). He came across oral interviews and other sources that told of a mixed-blood woman (part white, part Indian, part Hawaiian) who was the daughter of one of Sutter's Hawaiians and might have had a relationship with the last king of Hawai'i, and might have traveled with him when he went to San Francisco.

Virtually all of San Francisco's records were lost in the earthquake and fire of 1906, and much of the documentation relating to Hawaii's monarchs were lost during the overthrow of the monarchy shortly after Kalakaua's death, so it's likely we'll never have any hard evidence about "Nani'. One wax cylinder on which the king recorded his voice in San Francisco does still exist, but the sound of his words has been eaten away by time.

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in June 2007, and has been updated for the May 2008 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

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