As luck would have it, I’ve never visited Hawaii. I’d love to, someday, but so far I have not.
I first heard of the islands as a schoolchild in the UK, as the place where Captain James Cook died. In those days, Hawaii was an independent kingdom, although portrayed as a savage, uncivilized one in the colonialist textbook of my primary (elementary) school. Of course, this was the same textbook that reduced the six-year American War of Independence to a paragraph stating that King George III kindly released the colonists from their obligations to the crown in response to a few disturbances. When I moved across the Atlantic at the age of eleven, I soon learned the other side to that story, and it wasn’t hard to imagine that the Hawaiians might have had good reasons for objecting to Captain Cook as well.
There in Chicago, I learned about Hawaii as the fiftieth state, an island paradise where folks from the other forty-nine wanted to hang out on their vacations. Sun, beach, sea, mountains—even a kid in junior high school could appreciate the appeal. There was a casual mention of annexation in my US history classes, but that appeared as little more than a footnote on the way to rounding out the national roster—glossed over along with all the other stories of conquest and exploitation in favor of emphasis on the Louisiana Purchase and the $7 million that William Seward paid for Alaska. A different picture, for sure, stripped of the savage and uncivilized element, but not much more accurate for all that.
The Hawaii portrayed in Katherine Kayne’s Bound in Flame, the subject of my latest interview for New Books in Historical Fiction, is, in contrast, a vibrant and multifaceted place—still wrestling with the reality of US annexation, the loss of the islands’ independence, the overthrow of its royal family, and the assault on its ancient culture. There are certainly beaches, mountains, and flowers by the cartload, but the story behind the story is darker, grittier, and more realistic than the glorious photos of Waikiki with which we’re so familiar. Richer, too, since this is a tale of an island kingdom that valued education, experienced a deep attachment to the land and its creatures, and supported strong and assertive women—riders, spiritual leaders, rulers—at a time when much of the mainland insisted that females should see themselves solely as “angels about the house.”
As always, the rest of this post comes from New Books in Historical Fiction.
Leticia Liliuokalani Lang, better known as Letty, has good intentions, but her strong will and quick temper tend to get in her way. Banished from her Hawaiian home due to a conflict with her stepmother, Letty winds up in a California boarding school, where she decides to devote her career to healing animals—even though female veterinarians are scarcer than the proverbial hen’s teeth in 1906.
On the ship back to her beloved islands, Letty notices a beautiful racehorse and realizes the horse’s trainer is abusing him. An accident in the harbor sends the stallion into the ocean, and Letty dives in to save him without a second thought. That sets her on a collision course with the horse’s owner and trainer after she insults the former and reports on the latter’s mistreatment. All this before Letty even reaches her home and confronts the stepmother who sent her away.
Letty learns that she has a magical gift that challenges her self-control but acts as a source of strength and connection. She is one of nine Gates, bound to the earth, born with the ability to harness its power—represented by the flames of her spirit—to direct her intentions, for good or for ill. But Letty resists her destiny, knowing that her gift comes at a cost: a lifetime alone.
In this delightful debut novel Katherine Kayne sweeps us back to a Hawaii still mourning its lost kingdom, where ladies—their ballgowns covered in yards of protective fabric—gallop across the mountains and down the city streets on their way to polo matches and parties, men dance the hula as well as women, and flowers are everywhere. It’s no accident that Bound in Flame kicks off a brand-new series, aptly called The Hawaiian Ladies Riding Society.
Image: Lei © Sanba38 - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.