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Julia Flynn Siler: Lost Kingdom

A new book tells Hawaii’s fascinating story, from primordial lava flow to monarchy to statehood

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Lost Kingdom: Hawaii’s Last Queen, the Sugar Kings, and America’s First Imperial Adventure

Julia Flynn Siler

Atlantic Monthly Press, hardcover

Many Americans know bits and pieces of Hawaii’s story. You might remember snippets about the island nation’s last queen from your social studies textbooks in elementary school. But this oft-ignored chapter of America’s history has finally been given its due. Julia Flynn Siler (who also wrote the New York Times bestseller The House of Mondavi: The Rise and Fall of an American Wine Dynasty) recently released Lost Kingdom: Hawaii’s Last Queen, the Sugar Kings, and America’s First Imperial Adventure. The book is an in-depth exploration of the events leading up to Hawaii’s annexation by the United States. A longtime journalist, Siler is able to stick to the facts while producing a riveting, fleshed-out account.

Starting literally at Hawaii’s beginning millions of years ago, the introduction takes the reader through the moments in which lava bubbled up out of the Pacific, forming a collection of islands that would go uninhabited (by humans, at least) until about 200 A.D. Traveling great distances from other parts of Polynesia, a brave few came to settle on the remote lands, 2,400 miles from the nearest continent. Siler describes the shoots of sugar cane they brought with them, a crop that would later turn Western eyes toward the Pacific archipelago. Cut off from much of the world for generations, the people of Hawaii developed their own language, customs, and religion, linking their lives with the brutal unpredictability of the volcanic islands.

Finally, in 1778, Britain’s Capt. Cook James arrived on what the natives perceived as a floating temple. Originally, they believed the explorer was their god Lono, who according to prophecy was supposed to appear to them that season. But soon, his godlike façade crumbled, as he and his men brought waves of disease and violence to the Hawaiian people. Inevitably, word spread throughout the Western world, and missionaries arrived to civilize the “almost naked savages.” They built schools and churches, created a written alphabet for the then exclusively oral Hawaiian language, and began teaching the children of the ali‘i, or nobles. Ultimately, the children of said missionaries would grow up to dominate the country, often using its resources to fulfil their own interests.

Throughout much of the book, Siler follows the life of Queen Lili‘uokalani, or Lili‘u to those close to her, and the former monarch proves to be a fascinating protagonist. Excerpts from Lili‘u’s own diary entries and letters guide the reader through her journey from passive, missionary-trained child to strong-willed queen fighting for the rights of native Hawaiians. Rather than use force to stave off an American takeover, she knew that a more peaceful and diplomatic route would avoid bloodshed. Siler clearly describes Lili‘u’s perspective without it feeling contrived. She also breathes life into the cast of characters surrounding the ruler, clearly portraying their personalities, intentions, and backgrounds.

To help readers keep track of names and Hawaiian words, Lost Kingdom includes descriptions of important people and a glossary at the beginning of the book. Siler wisely kept key information succinct and easily accessible to her audience.

Despite the heart-wrenching subject, the book manages to be honest and open about the misdeeds committed against native Hawaiians without feeling heavy-handed. For instance, the birth of the Crown Prince Albert was a joyous occasion in the Hawaiian royal family, since diseases from haole, or outsiders, left many natives infertile, and the monarchy was lacking a direct heir to the throne. But at the age of 4, the prince died of what was then known as “brain fever,” or meningitis. After learning of the steep decline in the Hawaiian population due to disease and infertility, the news makes one’s heart drop, and Siler relays the information in two short paragraphs. It’s factual—but not cold—and she allows the information as it stands to make an impact on the reader.

Lost Kingdom smoothly juggles multiple tasks. On the one hand, it’s a historical account of the final days of Hawaii’s monarchy. On the other, it’s a study of a host of complex characters and how they interacted in an ever-shifting political landscape. At the center of it all lies a truly inspiring heroine. Siler’s vivid retelling of her story brings to light a piece of America’s history that is sadly often kept in the shadows. Fortunately, Siler gives it due respect, delivering it to modern-day audiences with an engaging and trustworthy voice.

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