This review is about a year overdue. You know how it is when you really like something and it’s hard to write about it because you want it to be just right? That’s how I feel about this next book, and since it won an Award of Excellence at the Ka Palapala Po’okela Awards last year, apparently I’m not the only one who thinks so.

Hawaiian History is often broken into time frames by significant events like “pre-contact”, “post-annexation” or “the monarchy era”. There’s no doubt our island history is laden with drama, but the overthrow of the kingdom and the heartbreak of our ali’i is especially tragic. The Last Aloha by Gaellen Quinn is a historical fiction novel of the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy and truly an amazing book. Since today marks the anniversary of the day when Queen Liliu’okalani officially abdicated the throne I thought this review and book recommendation was fitting.

The Last Aloha shows there are powers apart from political and material powers that can restore the human spirit in a turbulent world.

Laura Jennings is no stranger to heartbreak, losing her mother at such an early age, and just when she thinks her happy ending is in sight, tragedy strikes again. She finds herself a stranger in a faraway land dependent on family she’s never known and more alone than she could have ever imagined. Honolulu is growing fast and with missionary descendants reaping unbelievable financial rewards, change is looming and Laura finds herself thrust directly in its path.

To escape her controlling uncle, Laura searches for employment and is soon hired as Princess Kaiulani’s new governess. Trapped between her uncle’s rich business associates and the heritage/culture that she was born into, and the friends she makes in the Hawaiian Kingdom, Laura struggles to do what she feels is right. She is inspired by the Queen and her commitment to her people and soon becomes a trusted friend of the royal family. We see the overthrow of the monarchy and the annexation of Hawaii through Laura’s eyes… an outsider on the inside. From one tragedy to the next Laura finds hope for the future in the lessons she’s learned from Lili’uokalani and the Hawaiian people.

Gender and race issues are slowly overcome in this coming of age tale about a young woman making a life for herself during the tumultuous transition of Hawaii. Perhaps what stood out for me most was the racism… you really feel all the nuances of what it was like to be an educated Hawaiian among white American businessmen– that regardless of how cultured and intelligent you were, as long as you were kanaka you were second-class. Phrases like “half-caste” are usually synonymous with Southern plantations and slavery, but few realize that same racism and social hierarchy also existed here in Hawaii. I found it particularly heartbreaking when Laura was forbidden to form friendships with any men of Hawaiian ancestry, even if  (or especially if) they were “half-caste”. Quinn writes masterfully and you really feel the ethnic tension, and the circumstantial frustration of the characters. Although it drags a bit in the third quarter of the book, Quinn has a sense of immediacy in her pacing that makes you feel like it’s all happening right now.

This is a very special book and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in experiencing what a fledgling Honolulu might have been like. Great characters and meticulous research has paid off for Quinn in creating a story with such raw authenticity that it has you thinking about this book long after you’ve put it down.

Visit Gaellen Quinn’s website to purchase The Last Aloha and learn more about her books.

The Last Aloha
By Gaellen Quinn
Lost Coast Press, 2009
392 pages

Disclaimer: We received a complimentary copy of this book from the author in exchange for our honest review.