No matter if you are from Asia or a citizen of mainland United States, coming to live in Hawaii makes you an outsider – even today. In the early 1900s, before the islands became a state, Hawaii represented paradise and an opportunity to start over.
In Honolulu, Alan Brennert uses the life of a young Korean immigrant who sells herself as a mail-order bride to a Korean farm laborer working in Hawaii. Known as a “picture-bride,” she hoped to escape her unfulfilled life in Korea, find the promised land and a better life. Instead, she finds a different kind of suppression with an alcoholic, abusive husband.
Eventually, Regret (named so because her parents wanted a boy) finds the American dream. Throughout, she is cast as the girl with initiative – learning to read when it was forbidden, divorcing her husband, earning her own living by first working in the fields, later as a seamstress in the red light district and in the pineapple cannery. Eventually, she marries again, has three children, starts a credit cooperative, and invents the Aloha shirt.
Brennert weaves in historical details that cast a realistic pall on the tropical paradise – it’s not all coconut palms, sunsets, and blue ocean. If you are familiar with local haunts, you will relish references to Liliha (Bakery) Cafe, Duke Kahanamoku, houses on Wilhelmina Rise, and high rises on Ala Moana. If you know Hawaii’s history, you will recognize references to Queen Liliuokalani and the plantations. Brennert even manages to weave the infamous Massie trial into the story.
Told in the voice of Regret, the narrative can be difficult to follow and too long – might be easier to listen to it on audiotape. The story follows a familiar and formulaic plot line with requisite sprinkles of Hawaiian song and culture. Brennert is not Michener (Hawaii) or even Paul Theroux (Hotel Honolulu), but he tries his best to create a saga with tropical seasoning.