Indistinguishable from the other concrete canyons leading to Waikiki Beach lies a street called Paoakalani, “heavenly fragrance,” which, we learn in this gorgeous novel by a Californian who dearly loved Hawaii, is named for the long-vanished beachfront home of Queen Liliuokalani–to which she got away from Washington Place and her husband, John Dominis. It takes a discerning novelist to dispel our preconceptions about historical figures and bring them to life, and so James Houston does for the heroic woman familiar to us as a queen, eloquent songwriter and defender of her rights and her people but seldom portrayed as, well, just a woman.
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.
Liliuokalani and her admirer–and we–will always have the music they play and sing in Paoakalani, and the music of the waves at Waikiki. Houston, the author of eight books, including Snow Mountain Passage, Native Son of the Golden West, Hawaiian Son: The Life and Music of Eddie Kamae, and, with his wife Jeanne Wakatsuke Houston, Farewell to Manzanar, was an avid surfer, as was the Queen. On the beach, watching a waverider come in at sunset, Julius wonders: “On such an evening, is there any lovelier spot on earth?” We know what Houston’s answer would be–he and Jeanne were married on this beach–and can only affirm it with all our hearts.