Thursday, May 15, 2014
Bird of Another Heaven (2007), by James D. Houston
Unlike Snow Mountain Passage, the contemporary character's real-time story is an important part of the overall narrative, and is skillfully used to pull the historical strands together into a reflection on the classic "what we've gained / what we've lost" discussion that makes the history even more compelling.
The present-day protagonist is a public radio talk show host named Sheridan "Dan" Brody. He knows that he is of mixed racial ancestry, but his father's early death and his mother's reluctance to talk about the past have left him without much information about his heritage. His quest to recover his family story is the plot device that pulls together all of the historical threads.
Bird of Another Heaven begins with a visit to San Francisco in 1891 by David Kalakaua, last King of Hawai'i. What was intended to be a brief visit turns out to be the final episode of his eventful life. From that beginning, the novel swings both to future and past. Dan eventually learns that his birth father's name was Sheridan Wadell, that he is a distant cousin of that Hawai'ian king, and that he also has native Californian ancestry along with his mother's Arkansas anglo heritage.
The story of how the blood of Hawai'ian royalty and a northern California Miwok village came to be combined in Dan Brody, and how his discovery of that heritage affects his present-time view of his place in the world, are the central themes of Bird of Another Heaven. Along the way, the reader learns about a number of historical events and characters, including the Swiss entrepreneur Johan "John" Sutter, who had to sail first to the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii) to get from Oregon to California in 1838. While there, he hired a dozen Hawaiians willing to go with him to unexplored regions of the Sacramento River in Mexican Alta California and help build a new settlement among the Miwok. That wilderness settlement became known as Sutter's Fort, and evolved into the capitol city of the state.
This novel, like Snow Mountain Passage, gets straight "5"s on my criteria, so there's no need to go through the whole list. There's one thing I wish Houston could have done that would have made Bird of Another Heaven even more fun (for me and other fans of serial hist-fic). The one historical character with a significant role in both novels is John Sutter. Unfortunately, his appearance in Bird of Another Heaven is in 1838, while in Snow Mountain Passage, the year is 1846. That made it impossible to include, in the later novel, a reference to Sutter's role in the earlier novel, or repeat appearances by fictional characters. Sutter's kanaka mistress is a fictional character in Snow Mountain Passage, but no other Hawai'ians figure into the Donner Party story. The author may have had no desire to include such a self-reference anyway, since these two novels cannot be considered serial in any significant sense.