Book Reviews

Bird of Another Heaven by
James D. Houston

Alfred A. Knopf, USA

book cover

This well-researched historical novel of duplicitous politics and conflicting cultures delves into the conspiracy theory of King Kalakaua’s death in San Francisco at the Palace Hotel. The sudden death in 1891 of Hawai’i’s last reigning king occurred at exactly the right time for American businessmen scheming to overthrow the Hawaiian monarchy. Like a well-orchestrated plan, when the monarchy was overthrown, Kalakaua’s designated successor, the beloved Queen Liliuokalani, was imprisoned in Iolani Palace, American businessmen seized power with their provisional government, and Hawai’i was annexed as a territory of the United States.

Locals have always wondered how and why such a vibrant, well-educated, well-traveled man of Kalakaua’s vigor could suddenly die. Houston provides a back story. Told in narratives from both the past and present, we see how strongly the past influences the choices we make in the present.

Sheridan Brody is an outspoken late-night talk show host. When he receives a call from a woman who claims she is his grandmother, he discovers that his great-grandmother, Nani Keala (a.k.a Nancy Callahan) was descended from California Indians and a pure-blooded Hawaiian who worked for John Sutter at the time gold was discovered in California.

Through Nani Keala’s journals, given to him by his mysterious grandmother Rosa Wadell, Sheridan pieces together the life of his great-grandmother, who discovered, from the genealogy chant she suddenly found herself singing to King Kalakaua when they first met, that she was descended from a chiefly line through her father. Her ancestral relationship to Kalakaua elevated her to a trusted status with the king, which later expanded to confidante, personal kahili bearer, and lover.

Key to the narrative is the disappearance of a wax cylinder recording of King Kalakaua’s voice, supposedly made a few days before the king’s death by an employee of the Edison Company. Although two were made, only one cylinder survived. That second cylinder, according to Nani Keala’s journal, was Kalakaua’s chant, Kaholokai Kaleponi ("The California Sailor"), recounting the legendary tale of her father’s departure from Hawai’i. But King Kalakaua, a poet and aficionado of Hawaiian hula and chant, did not make the recording just for the sake of the Edison Company. Like most Hawaiian chants and songs, it had a kaona, a hidden meaning; his people would understand the double meaning and rally around the monarchy.

As Sheridan Brody discovers this, he realizes the deception and betrayal in his own situation as his position in his job is overthrown.

Houston has carefully unfolded the plots which never appeared in our history books. Hawai’i’s history has always been complex, and, once the Westerners landed in the islands, one of duplicity. At the time of the first Western contact there were a million Hawaiians; at the time of Kalakaua’s death, there were 40,000. Characters such as Giles Peabody reveal the mentality of the businessmen for whom profit, commerce, and their own values overrode consideration for the culture and well-being of the local people.

Read Bird of Another Heaven mindful of the kaona and the novel becomes an especially poignant reflection of a critical time in Hawai’i’s history.

Reviewed by Pam Chun