Sequel leads adoptee from HI to WWII concentration camps in NorCal


By Alan Brennert (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2019, 320 pp., $27.99, hardcover)

Daughter of Moloka‘i

First and foremost, writer Alan Brennert is a wonderful world builder. It’s not surprising that he has received a glowing review of his latest novel, “Daughter of Moloka‘i,” from Games of Thrones’ George R. R. Martin. They both are assured craftsmen and while Martin is best known for his world of dragons, Brennert’s canvas for many past novels is his beloved Hawai‘i.

“Daughter of Moloka‘i” begins in an orphanage in Honolulu and readers are immediately steeped in the life of a young Ruth Utagawa, which feels like a combination of “Anne of Green Gables” and “Call the Midwife.” Ruth rules the scene here and her love for animals is a passion that continues throughout the novel.

Brennert then ambitiously sets out to follow the adopted Ruth to pre-World War II agricultural California (Florin, specifically) and then through the horrors of the Japanese American incarceration (first Tanforan, then Manzanar and a few scenes even in Tule Lake). The author has definitely done his homework, reading various nonfiction works, which he attributes in the acknowledgments, and working with the staff at the Manzanar National Historic Site. Because he is so adept at physical description, we can both see and feel the confinement and certain well-known historic incidents like the Manzanar Riot. Real people like the Manzanar lead surgeon, Dr. James Goto, appear, which will delight those who knew him.

Brennert’s thoroughness in research, however, ironically hindered my full enjoyment of the novel. History here has become a cage for his characters, limiting what they could do. For me, it stripped some of the surprise during the World War II years. As fictional characters, Ruth and her adoptive family could only behave in certain ways already described in both works of nonfiction or memoir like “Farewell to Manzanar.” The one unique element to this story is Ruth’s mixed ethnicity.

I realize that I may not be a typical reader of “Daughter of Moloka‘i,” a follow-up to the bestselling novel, “Moloka‘i.” There will be many who are totally unaware of details related to the incarceration and for them, the material may be fresh, new and eye opening. But I also imagine that they will long for more time with the indomitable Ruth, the product of a Japanese man and Hawaiian woman, both sufferers of Hansen’s disease, or more commonly known as leprosy. Reading this well-written novel makes me want to, more than ever, dive back into “Moloka‘i.”

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