James D. Houston’s 120-page novel is an unfinished glimpse into the relatively unexplored genre of Hawaiian historical fiction. Though he passed in 2009 and the novel was cut short, readers will have a rare opportunity to hear from a few of the people who knew Houston personally: his wife, Jean Wakatsuki Houston (co-author of Farewell to Manzanar), Eddie Kamae, and Maxine Hong Kingston.
Title of latest book: A Queen’s Journey
Genre: Historical fiction; Hawaiian
Heyday; November 1, 2011
Paperback; $11.69; 120 pages; not illustrated
Excerpt available online
The book: There are few more intriguing and captivating characters in the history of Hawaii than its last queen, Liliuokalani—the island monarch who could just as easily read Shakespeare as “sit barefooted on a woven mat.” Told with mesmerizing detail by master storyteller James D. Houston, A Queen’s Journey captures the deep ambiguities of Liliuokalani’s magnetic personality and the tumultuous times in which she lived. Houston (1933-2009) was perhaps the only writer with the literary talent, courage, and deep knowledge of Hawaiian culture and history needed to tell this story, and although he died before finishing the novel that was to be his masterwork, we are lucky to have this first part, which stands alone as a fully realized and moving portrait of the queen and her time.
We first see Liliuokalani in her pre-Queen days as the young Lydia Dominis, dancing at a shipboard party in Honolulu Harbor in 1868, through the eyes of a narrator freshly arrived from Boston.
Although he sees her as “the most desired woman at the party,” a “gypsy girl” with “swelling bosom, the jeweled necklace against flawless olive skin, the black and abundant hair…” Julius, like the priggish Henry Higgins, is at first afraid to dance with Lydia. Why? “I’m ashamed to confess that the thought of this unnerved me, touching skin a few shades darker than my own.” Julius, to his credit, gets over it, although, because the novel is unfinished, we are left hanging as to how far he actually ever gets with the girl whose eyes, “darker than ebony, were also lit with a black fire.”
A captivating read, true to history, place and a brilliant, passionate woman (just listen to her songs!) who bridged two cultures, A Queen’s Journey stops in mid-story, interrupted by James Houston’s death. He was fighting cancer as he wrote it, and managed to complete this first hundred pages that stand on their own. The story climaxes 30 years later with Liliuokalani’s visit to a wintry White House, where she once again charms President Grover Cleveland, who had opposed the overthrow, and asks him to now prevent U.S. annexation. Julius, the journalist onlooker, feels a stab of jealousy, but remains a loyal friend who will set aside his dreamed-of Hawaii book to help the Queen write and publish her own story.
James D. Houston was born in San Francisco and attended San José State University where he met Jeanne Wakatsuki, whom he would marry in 1957. He received his master’s degree in American literature from Stanford, where he studied under Wallace Stegner, Irving Howe, and Frank O’Connor. Among his many fiction and nonfiction books are Bird of Another Heaven, Snow Mountain Passage, Where the Light Takes Its Color from the Sea, Surfing: A History of the Ancient Hawaiian Sport, Californians: Searching for the Golden State, and Hawaiian Son: The Life and Music of Eddie Kamae. Houston also co-authored his wife’s bestselling autobiographical memoir, Farewell to Manzanar, about her experiences in the Manzanar internment camp.
Over the course of his prolific career, Houston won many awards and honors and taught creative writing at a number of workshops and universities including Stanford, University of California’s Santa Cruz campus, University of Hawai’i, University of Oregon, University of Michigan, and George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. With Jeanne, he divided his time between Hawaii and an old Victorian home in Santa Cruz, California.
When acclaimed local author James Houston passed away in 2009, he left behind this beginning of a novel about Hawaii’s captivating last queen, Liliuokalani—the island monarch who could just as easily read Shakespeare as “sit barefooted on a woven mat.” “The setting sun filling our eyes and our hearts with inspirational fire, the story can well end. Jim Houston has finished his tale, satisfying and whole.”
”What transpires in these pages is historical fiction at its finest. The novelist, working at the top of his powers, makes us privy to the private as well as the public side of this story [about] this odd pair of old friends the newsman and the queen.”
—Alan Cheuse, NPR commentator and author of Song of Slaves in the Desert
”From his earliest work to the unfinished A Queen’s Journey, James Houston has created a vast narrative landscape that rises like an archipelago long submerged on the ocean floor. Rooted in tragic history, vivified in characters like the enchanting last queen Liliuokalani, sited in something close to earthly paradise, Jim’s work evokes the startling flavors of California, the mainland U.S., and Hawaii.”
Houston’s other works:
Surfing: A History of the Ancient Hawaiian Sport (with Ben R. Finney); Charles Tuttle Co.; 1966
Between Battles; The Dial Press; 1968
GIG; The Dial Press; 1969
A Native Son of the Golden West; The Dial Press; 1971
An Occurrence at Norman’s Burger Castle (Yes! Capra Chapbook Series: Number 2); Capra Press; 1972
Farewell to Manzanar (with Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston); Bantam Books; 1973
The Adventures of Charlie Bates; Capra Press; 1973
Open Field (with John R. Brodie); Bantam Books; 1974
Three Songs for my Father; Capra Press; 1974
Continental Drift; University of California Press; 1978
West coast fiction: Modern writing from California, Oregon, and Washington; Bantam Books; 1979
Gasoline: The Automotive Adventures of Charlie Bates; 1980
Californians: Searching for the Golden State; Alfred Knopf; 1982
Love Life; Alfred Knopf; 1985
One Can Think About Life After the Fish is in the Canoe, and Other Coastal Sketches; Capra Press; 1985
In the Ring of Fire: A Pacific Basin Journey; Mercury House; 1997
The Men in my Life, and Other More or Less True Recollections of Kinship; Creative Arts Book Co.; 1987
The Last Paradise, a novel; The University of Oklahoma Press; 1998
The Literature of California, Vol. One (co-edited with Jack Hicks, Maxine Hong Kingston, and Al Young); University of California Press; 2000
Snow Mountain Passage, a novel; Harvest/Harcourt; 2001
Hawaiian Son: The Life and Music of Eddie Kamae; Ai Pohaku Press; 2004
Bird of Another Heaven; Alfred Knopf; 2007
Where Light Takes Its Color From the Sea: A California Notebook; Heyday Books; 2008