“Lost Kingdom” by Julia Flynn Siler

The book cover is light teal with the title “Lost Kingdom” in blood-red near a photo of a solemn Queen Lili‘uokalani. A dramatic subtitle is superimposed over a historic map of the Hawaiian Islands: “Hawaii’s Last Queen, the Sugar Kings, and America’s First Imperial Adventure.” The author’s name, journalist Julia Flynn Siler, anchors the bottom of the book.

“Lost Kingdom” (2012) opens with a “Cast of Characters,” giving it the feel of a play; and a glossary of Hawaiian terms. From the character sketches alone, readers can draw a few conclusions: that Hawaiian royalty had few children and, in general, lived beyond their means; that the children of missionaries were ambitious and financially successful; and that royal Hawaiian women bridges cultures and often married non-Hawaiians. The Introduction establishes Hawaiian culture, from the Kumulipo, Hawaiian society, and the careful cultivation of the land and sea; to first contact with Westerners in 1778 and the influx of disease, firearms, liquor, Christianity, and sugar.

The book is divided into three sections: Island Kingdom, 1820-1881; the House of Kalakaua, 1883-1893; and Manifest Destiny, 1893-1898. Historical narrative is interspersed with short personal accounts, mostly of Lili‘u’s life. She is portrayed as modest, well-mannered, and eager to please as a youth; and impetuous, steadfast, controlled, and lonely as an adult. Lili‘u’s legacy is a lost throne, beautiful music, and a trust to help orphaned and destitute children.

From the start, I was uncomfortable with part of the subtitle, “America’s First Imperial Adventure” – which makes the historical account seem bold and exciting (perhaps “Venture” or simply “American Imperialism” would have been more appropriate). Siler describes the monarchy’s overthrow as an audacious land grab and the start of American imperialism. 

Having grown up in Hawaii, it’s hard to step back and look at Hawaiian history, and Siler’s narrative, critically and impartially. Siler does not examine why the Hawaiians embraced Western culture so quickly, but she does state that Christian missionaries arrived at a time when Hawaiians were experiencing a crisis of faith. Siler depicts Hawaiian monarchs as naïve and inexperienced, dependent on Western money and seduced by Western culture. Though Siler makes it clear that Western businessmen illegally (and unethically?) deposed Hawaii’s queen, Hawaiian monarchs were not good stewards of the kingdom and gave up too much of their power to foreign influences.

On a personal level, Siler concludes that “the values of humility, meekness, and obedience that Lili‘u absorbed from her missionary teachers undercut the traditional power of the ali‘i” (page 49). I was saddened to realize that Lili‘u’s personal life was so unhappy, from her unwilling name change to her marriage to John Dominis, and even some estrangement with her heir, Princess Kaiulani.

“Lost Kingdom” is ambitious; it tries to be both a history and a biography at the same time, and sometimes comes across as rambling. Other ali‘i are mentioned in passing. Digressions about the rise of sugarcane, the displacement of taro fields and fish ponds, and water disputes create a vivid image of the changes in Hawaii, but take attention away from Lili‘u’s life and the greater political struggle. And there’s little attention to ordinary Hawaiians and how political changes impacted them.

Even today, Hawaii’s past is controversial, unresolved, and full of emotion. If you read “Lost Kingdom,” what do you think of the way Hawaiian monarchs and Western businessmen are portrayed? Can past injustices be made right? How much should our past influence our future decisions?

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