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James D. Houston
Bird of Another Heaven
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2007

Alfred A. Knopf / Random House
US First Edition Hardcover
ISBN 978-1-4000-4204-9
352 Pages; $25
Publication Date: 03-26-2007
Date Reviewed: 03-24-2007

Index: General Fiction

Every family is a conspiracy, a set of nested secrets waiting to be spoken aloud. James D. Houston's 'Bird of Another Heaven' speaks secrets eloquently in a variety of voices as his characters pursue truths that history has concealed. Like any family, like your family, it is a complicated puzzle, a mystery that can only be solved by experience. When you start at the beginning, you will discover you are in the middle; when the novel is complete, you will realize that the family, whether yours or the tangled tapestry spun within the novel, need never end. Each word spoken lays in memory, waiting to be heard by another generation.

Houston's novel begins as the narrator, Sheridan Brody, imagines his great-grandmother by the side of the last king of Hawaii, King Kalakaua. The year is 1891, and he is dying in his room at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco, California. A representative from the Edison company has come to record the King's voice. There are two Edison cylinders. One, we know by history, ends up in a museum. In a sense, 'Bird of Another Heaven' is the tale recorded on the other cylinder, which has disappeared into both family and global history. As Sheridan Brody unearths the tale of Nani Keala, his great grandmother, we can experience the rich fragrance of years gone by, the powerful memories made real by powerful prose that brings to life generations of complex characters.

'Bird of Another Heaven' captivates the reader from the get-go with Houston's intriguing tale of the only monarch to die on American soil. Sheridan Brody, who tells the tale, is a late night, laid back talk show host who gets a call one night in 1987 from a woman claiming to be a grandmother he never knew. Intrigued by her words, Brody meets with her and discovers a family genealogy that he never suspected. His grandmother Rosa has a complicated heritage that traces back the ties between the native tribes of Hawaii and the Indian tribes of northern California. As he learns about the shenanigans that lead to the annexation of Hawaii and his family's involvement in them, he starts to see parallels to his own situation as a host for a small-time radio station being overrun by a homogenizing corporate conglomerate. His quest for his own missing history leads him to search for the missing cylinder, and something within him that itself is worthy of history.

Houston's prose is gorgeously elegiac but filled with the thrum of an inner tension that turns the novel into a compulsive, engulfing reading experience. He effortlessly slips from one century to another, from one world to another as his characters travel from Hawaii to what will become Sacramento. Portions of the novel are told by the diary entries of Nani Keala, in a direct and compelling voice. Houston seamlessly takes the reader on an extraordinary journey, his words providing a transparent window, an open door through which we experience more than we could possibly experience in a single lifetime.

Though the narrator is male, as is the author, there's strong matriarchal feel to the novel. Not girly, mind you, just a powerful vision of women who have an innate sense of power, even if in they have lived their lives in the background of larger events. Nani Keala starts out the novel as young girl but matures gracefully. Rosa, her daughter, seen mostly as a grandmotherly figure in the novel, is quirky and yet quietly powerful. They need to be to keep up with the real-life figure of King Kalakaua, certainly one of the most fascinating historical figures I've ever read about in a work of fiction. Houston's prose and sense of characterization is so organic that one never thinks of which characters are "real"; they are all real in the reading experience.

The plots of 'Bird of Another Heaven' offer a gripping account of underhanded politics and the clash of cultures as America flexed its growing muscles. None of this is referentially lost upon the present day reader, but the history here is particularly fascinating. Houston has a knack for making what happened in the past both clearly comprehensible and compelling reading. 'Bird of Another Heaven' is immersive and expressive, a world to get lost in that nonetheless returns readers to our own world with a startling clarity of focus.

We understand that life is complex, and that families are more so, but in our day-to-day experience, the details can overwhelm us. 'Bird of Another Heaven' takes readers outside of any life they might have lived and immerses them in world equally complex, but ultimately clear and compelling. The details in the lovely tapestry wrought within 'Bird of Another Heaven' conspire to create a family that will speak its secrets. Listen to those secrets and whisper your own.

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