Part two in a series about writing family stories. Part one is Turning Family Stories Into Novels.
My husband’s grandmother was an amazing woman. I can still hear her laugh. She loved her three daughters, seven grandchildren, and multitude of great-grandchildren, and I’m pleased that my own sons both have good memories of the woman they called Cookie Grandma for her always-full cookie jar.
Grandma was born on the island of Kauai and grew up in Honolulu. I know from my mother-in-law that her childhood wasn’t an easy one. Her mother died when she was a baby, and her father left her with strangers to go to the mainland for work. Grandma married young and had three children by the time she was twenty. Her husband abused her. She fell in love with her husband’s nephew, who was her age. I marveled that a woman with such difficult experiences could become the warm, loving matriarch I knew. Wondering how that could happen led me to write my novel The Aloha Spirit.
As I had done with Under the Almond Trees, I started by talking to family. Grandma and Grandpa had passed away by then, as had my mother-in-law, so I talked to my husband’s aunts. My mother-in-law was the oldest of the three girls, so she had pretty clear memories of her early childhood in Honolulu as well as their trip to San Francisco after Pearl Harbor was bombed. One of the aunts was three years old during that trip, and the other was five. Their memories were of San Jose, where the family settled in California. Immensely helpful was the trip to Honolulu taken by my family when Grandpa showed us the house the family lived in, on the corner of Iolani and Magellan, and told us of his experience working at Pearl Harbor during the bombing.
The time that interested me was one not covered much in literature, the time after Hawaii’s royalty was ousted but before Hawaii became a state. I read novels about the ending of royalty, like The Last Aloha by Gaellen Quinn, and novels set during World War II like Sara Ackerman’s The Lieutenant’s Nurse and Island of Sweet Pies and Soldiers. From these I was able to glean details about life in the islands during this era. The photo shows the variety of books, nonfiction and fiction, that I used to research this book. I’d expected to find Honolulu somewhat primitive, compared to modern cities. To my surprise, I learned King David Kalakaua had been fascinated by modern gadgets. As a result, my book opens in 1920 Honolulu with electricity, telephones, streetcars, and running water. Not all of it worked consistently, but the infrastructure was there.
The theme of my novel, though, wasn’t Hawaiian technology. I needed to get a feel for aloha, that island attitude that welcomes tourists, the attitude I’d felt on many trips to Hawaii. I needed to imagine how aloha could triumph over adversity. That’s where the novel writer took over. Research can only take an author so far. Some authors are guilty of including too much detail from their research in their novels (more about that in the next part of this series!) when what a novel really needs is emotional reaction to conflict and events. Emotions and attitudes of family members are rarely recorded. A novelist needs to weave plausible reactions into the researched events to make the novel come alive. My husband’s aunt cried when she read The Aloha Spirit, so I believe I’ve done that.