Kealaula lives in Vermont, her father calls her Chickadee, a bird with a plaintive call, “the saddest sound I knew” but also with a “trill that sounds like excitement spiralling up a spine.” Through this novel, Kealaula learns what that is like; to have “so many reasons to be sad” yet at the same time starting to feel the excitement of connectedness.
Kealaula is a Bildungsroman, taking Kealaula from childhood to being a “human in my own right.” When her mother is diagnosed with leukaemia, Kealaula and her young sister Virgilia, are sent to Hawaii to stay with their Auntie ‘Ānela. They go from the smell of maple syrup and making snow angels to the fragrance of plumerias and floating in the sea. Kealaula starts on a journey of discovering her Hawaiian heritage, all with a tinge of sadness, knowing what her parents are dealing with back home.
This novel could have been trite and predictable, but it is far from it. Kealaula’s family history, even the world she has been born into, is complex and intriguing. People and places have names full of conflicting histories, Kealaula’s name is Hawaiian, Virgilia is named after her grandfather, their father being a 7th generation Vermonter. They live near Jamaica Village, named after the Natick word for beaver, but of course having other resonances. They have an aunt training to be a Rabbi, Kealaula refers to a later interest in yoga. The children in the school that Kealaula attends in Hawaii are a mixture of looks and ethnicities. The sisters discover they have a Japanese grandmother, Tūtū Akiko.
Kealaula looks at home in Hawaii, and is accepted as a local, as long as she doesn’t speak. And some of her friends, although they are locals, are shamed for “sharing the blood of the Conquerors”, because they don’t look Hawaiian or don’t have Hawaiian names. This melange of people and information is the background for Kealaula’s discovering how her mother ended up in Vermont, how families can be wrenched apart and lost to each other for years yet remain somehow connected.
The book refrains from being over sentimental, even though Kealaula feels an affinity to the sea, and the landscape around her, she’s not that good at the hula and her first surf is a disaster. And there are subtleties to the differences she experiences between Southern Vermont and Waimea, Hawaii. The male/female divide is more pronounced, making her experience of female connectedness intense, and her slight sexual attraction to her cousin and to a friend’s brother more visceral.
The mystery at the core of the family story is a revelation for Kealaula, and a prompt for her to see her relatives in a new light. She ponders Whāngai-type relationships in a world where people and families travel far and wide. And how anger is always from a point of view; that seeing something through someone else’s eyes can turn that anger to sadness. The book is full of references to rivers and the sea, Kealaula sees people as waves, all individual yet all connected, she spends a lot of time unsure: “I felt myself as in a limbo, and floating.” She has vivid dreams when away from home, all somehow related to water.
Kealaula is a lovely read, achingly sad yet also full of optimism due to the connections between people that persist through time, and that give comfort and the constant hope of renewal. It is a Young Adult novel which can be enjoyed by all.