Finished Pamela Ball’s The Floating City last week and I am 95% satisfied. So far I’m two-for-two in picking out satisfactory reads in my Friends of the Library loot. (The other that I loved from that grab bag was Free Food for Millionaires.)
When the woman finally spoke, it was in English too perfect to be her first language. A first language is a child bursting into the room, too exuberant to care what is knocked over or ripped apart. Every language after that moves with the cautious step of an adult.
I left off the 5% in an A+ for Satisfaction because the novel seemed to end too abruptly for me. It wasn’t so bad as being dragged along for a thousand pages and suddenly suspended from a cliff, but it was perhaps frustrating at the end because it was historical fiction, and Ball didn’t leave any sense of resolve or hint of the protagonist’s next step.
The read was fascinating, though. As evidenced by the earlier quote, Ball is fantastic with her words. I found all of her writing to be poetic, and it resonated with a very folkloric voice. Her metaphors are amazing. I was underlining probably three bits per page trying to catch all her charming phrases. She sounds like a storyteller who grew up in a talk story land ought to sound. Comforting and haunting. Rich in details that pique all five senses.
The story of Floating City is set in pre-annexation Hawai’i. So. Interesting. Up until picking up the book, names like “Kamehameha” and “Iolani” weren’t much more than my friend’s high schools to me. I’ve never been a seeker for historical fiction, but Cane River and taking a chance on Floating City have set me straight. It wasn’t that historical fiction is bad or uninteresting. It’s that I was reading the wrong stuff.
There’s something very compelling and also masochistic about historical fiction that is set in such a time of duress. Floating City shapes a Hawai’i in the throes of North America trying to take over. There’s a palpable amount of distrust and corruption in the air, and the racism is of a different breed than what I am most familiar with today. It’s not so hunky dory to read the story about a place so celebrated for its honeymoon-worthy surroundings, which makes it a really interesting read. With Hawaiian tourism marketing, we are led to believe that the islands are stuck in, and have forever been alive with Polynesian influence, grass skirts, and leis at the bottom of the airplane stairs. In truth, there was a time when White people came in their heavy foreign skirts and suits and overtook the incumbent leadership. Guns were smuggled in and buried under beach sand. Locals were locked in shoddy jails by people who decided they wanted the islands’ sugar. Floating City describes Honolulu as its sovereignty was being taken from its people.
It’s tough knowing what the overall outcome is going to be and being told what the details of the day-to-day were. Preceding every chapter is a one-page historical overview tying into the transition. This was one of the first, and understandably, one of the most impacting:
They had the resigned air of those who’ve been to jail many times. One of the women had brought her knitting, and as the day turned hot and sticky, the only sound was the insectlike clicking of the needles.
In New England in October 1819, there were signs that the Second Coming of Christ was imminent. People fell ill from strange ailments, their tongues thickened in their mouths, forcing them to speak with gestures. Clouds of birds flocked the sun, and under that shadow six bachelor missionaries made a hasty search for wives.
How easy is it to find a bride at a moment’s notice? Perhaps it depends on where the search takes place. So much of our lives is defined by geography.
Less than a month later, armed with new brides and Bibles, they left Boston for Hawaii, a journey of eighteen thousand miles and 159 days.
What sort of women were these, who would marry complete strangers, then embark on such a long journey in a small boat crammed with Clavinists, chickens, pigs, supplies, freshly inscribed Bibles linking their names with their husbands’? The young women did their growing up quickly, in the dark rocking hull of a boat the width of three brooms laid end to end.
Sheets were hung between the narrow cots to promote the illusion of privacy, and the nausea of seasickness was quickly followed by the nausea of pregnancy.