James Houston: An intimate epic from a revered Santa Cruz author.
An Intimate Dance
James D. Houston's new novel explores the links between the death of the king of Hawaii and the rise of the state of California
By Rick Kleffel
On the first page of James D. Houston's new novel, Bird of Another Heaven, we encounter the last king of Hawaii, Kalakaua, in the Palace Hotel in San Francisco, on what will prove to be his deathbed. A representative of the Edison company has come to demonstrate to the king an incredible new technology that will allow him to record his voice on a wax cylinder.
"At the time I first heard the story," Houston says, "it came with a kind of context of conspiracy theory. ... Do we really know what the king said on that wax recording?"
Bird of Another Heaven (Knopf; $24.95 cloth) plumbs that mystery and finds layers of generational family stories that stretch from the Sacramento River Delta to the shores of Hawaii. Houston's story starts, in 1987, with Sheridan Brody, a talk-show radio host who discovers that he has a grandmother he never knew and, beyond her, a great-grandmother who may have attended the king in his final hours as his voice was recorded for posterity.
"The central character in this novel," Houston tells Metro Santa Cruz, "is Nani Keala, who is half-Hawaiian and half-California Indian. She was born in the Sierra Nevada foothills in the 1860s and ended up having an extraordinary life, an almost mythic life. I had to develop a character who is the narrator of the novel who is the great-grandson of this woman, and he discovers in the midst of his life a part of his family legacy that was kept out of sight by his parents.
"I had a similar experience in my own life," Houston relates. "My grandmother, who was a very sweet Tennessee mountain fundamentalist Christian lady, born in the Appalachians in the 1880s, moved down to Huntsville, Ala., in 1900, and she married a guy who was half-Indian, half-Cherokee. But I didn't find out about this for a long time."
The novel is an intimate epic, exploring the complexities of families and generations as California rises and Hawaii falls. Houston lives in Santa Cruz in a Victorian house once owned by Patty Reed, a survivor of the Donner Party and the subject of Houston's novel Snow Mountain Passage. Houston had never thought of himself as a historical novelist until he moved into that house and learned of its previous owner and her past.
"We didn't know that the house had a history when we moved in," he tells me. "It was just the cheapest place we could find in Santa Cruz at the time."
But for Houston, all characters start with place, and the more he learned about the house and its previous owner, the more intrigued he became with creating its history as fiction. "Later on, we found out it had this extraordinary history, but I'm always thinking of that relationship between the character and the place, so wherever a person's located is part of the character development for me, right from the beginning."
Bird of Another Heaven explores little-known histories in both Hawaii and California. One of the highlights of the novel is Houston's evocation of Gen. Sutter and the birth of Sacramento: "Only a couple of explorers had preceded him and left behind very sketchy maps. He was sailing into a world of tribal villages with six white sailors and 10 Hawaiians. The truth is that the first buildings that were erected at what is now the capital of the biggest state in the United States were Hawaiian grass houses."
The ties between Hawaii and California are offered not just on a grand scale but also in terms of complex characters intimately explored. "I'd been fascinated with Kalakaua for a long time," Houston says, "because he was a man of extraordinary talents and huge appetites."
Those appetites were used by his enemies to help bring about the collapse of the Hawaiian empire--with the aid of some handy Marines, who helped to craft what was called the "Bayonet Constitution." Kalakaua traveled the world, and in 1891, fell ill in San Francisco. But before his death, he brought about a rebirth of the Hawaiian culture, which had been systematically erased by three generations of missionaries.
When he was elected king, he single-handedly brought back the ancient traditions of the hula dance, long condemned as obscene.
"The rebirth of Hawaiian culture begins with Kalakaua's coronation," Houston explains, "when he said to the missionaries and all these uptight conquistadors who were trying to take over the islands, he said, 'This is who we are and this is where we come from.'"
James D. Houston will speak and sign 'Bird of Another Heaven' Thursday, March 29, at 7:30pm at Capitola Book Café, 1475 41st Ave., Capitola. (831.352.4415)
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