In all our research for the History Lives series, it was rare for us to come across high-quality biographies written specifically for young readers. One that impressed me while preparing our latest volume on the modern era was Sharon Linnea’s YA biography Princess Ka‘iulani: Hope of a Nation, Heart of a People. Brandon and I were so moved by Linnea’s telling of Ka‘iulani’s story that after additional research, we decided we had to include a chapter on this remarkable woman in our book.
Ka‘iulani was the last crown princess of Hawai‘i. The daughter of a Hawaiian princess and a Scottish businessman, she was an ali‘i, a member of the ruling class. Her maternal uncle was King Kalākaua; his heir to the throne was his sister, Ka‘iulani’s maternal aunt Lili‘uokalani, the last queen to sit on Hawai‘i’s throne. The little princess was raised a Christian, as were her mother and aunts and uncles, Western missionaries having converted many of the ali‘i in previous decades; and she was confirmed in the Anglican Church at the age of 14. She was a passionate child who took her faith and her royal responsibilities seriously. The short version of her story is that, while she was finishing her education in Europe with other royal children from around the world, a group of men known as “the missionary boys”—the grandsons of the original missionaries—were organizing a takeover of the sovereign islands for personal financial gain. (There is a sobering moment of contrast in the islands’ history when, as the “heathen” native rulers [as they were regularly characterized by their opponents] are seeking God’s guidance, the “missionary boys” are taking up arms to forcibly remove them from their home.) The political maneuvering between the non-citizen landowners, the native Hawaiians, and U.S. politicians was as complicated as you would expect, but in the end, despite Ka‘iulani’s impassioned and articulate pleas on behalf of her people (beginning when she was just 17), the islands were annexed by the U.S. in 1898—in no small part, to allow the establishment of a Navy base at the mouth of the Pearl River. Immediately, the now ex-princess turned her efforts to obtaining voting rights for all male natives (rather than only male landowners—who were primarily non-native—as the first constitution had it), and in that she was successful. But exhausted and heartbroken at the loss of her people’s national sovereignty, Ka‘iulani died the year after annexation at the age of 23.
So hers is a tragic story, and yet her faith and natural leadership qualities offer far more to readers than just tearful drama. As Linnea and others tell it, Ka‘iulani seems to have chosen a life of applied Christianity, believing in truth and seeking justice for those who depended upon her, and ultimately putting her hope not in human constructs but in a merciful and trustworthy God. I am always thrilled to discover women like this, as there have been many in history but we are greatly impoverished by lack of knowledge of them.
Linnea’s account is a lively, easy-to-read narrative based on known facts and reasonable surmises (utilizing papers and correspondence now held by the Hawaii State Archives, newspaper accounts, earlier biographies, etc.). In addition to her accessible style, Linnea offers a glossary of Hawaiian terms, a guide to pronouncing this melodic language, a fine collection of photos, and suggestions for further reading. The volume is published by Eerdmans Books for Young Readers, and aside from the egregious misspelling of the title on the spine they did a good job, with a single-column layout and large photos. Because it is simple enough to hold the interest of kids while specific enough to engage more sophisticated readers of history, it would be a good choice to read aloud from at the family dinner table or as the basis for a unit study on Hawai‘i involving multiple grade levels.
Even if you don’t pick up this book, I hope my review whets your appetite for Ka‘iulani’s chapter (along with those of nine other uniquely-gifted people) in our forthcoming Rescue and Redeem: Chronicles of the Modern Church (History Lives book 5). She really was a woman whose story everyone—not just native Hawaiians—should know.