Alan Brennert plunders the rich history of Hawaii for this novel, a vast treasure of immigrant lives in thrall to the early 20th century, framed in the experiences of a Korean picture bride. Regret travels from her family in Korea with the hope of bettering her life, responding to a newspaper advertisement for women to marry Korean bachelors in Hawaii, so-called picture brides.
Armed with only a photograph of her intended for identification, Regret and three other hopeful women arrive in Hawaii, most readily believing the common myth that the streets of the island are paved with gold. In a sharp contrast to their imaginations, the women are met by shabbily clad men who await their brides-to-be, husbands with humble positions.
Their expectations shattered, the picture brides assess their circumstances. One of the women, Regretís best friend, Sunny, cannot follow through with her promise, returning immediately to Korea with Regretís help of a small loan. Raised with traditional Confucian values, the remaining brides make do with their lot, ill-prepared for the harsh conditions that await them. To Regretís despair, her husband is a gambler and a drunkard, free with his fists when angry.
Breaking with tradition, Regret, who now calls herself Jin (Gem), escapes the increasing brutality of her marriage, beginning anew elsewhere on the island. This young woman is an example of the extraordinary accomplishments of immigrants in Hawaii - Chinese, Koreans and Japanese who come to work the sugar plantations and remain active participants in an expanding culture, sparking dynamic cultural growth from various challenges overcome by the newcomers.
Unfamiliar with her new home, Jin seeks accommodation that she can afford, choosing a small room in a questionable district where women ply their services and the police frequently raid local establishments. Nevertheless, Jin becomes a part of this new community, befriending neighbors for their kindness without judgment, an attribute that works to her advantage as the years pass and she needs the help of friends.
Like Jin, many Koreans harbor a mistrust of the Japanese who annex her country and exploit the Korean population. Racial identity looms in this novel, only garnering public attention in a conflict with the U.S. Navy and historical violent incidents that expose long-simmering prejudices between locals and the light-skinned island residents. Deeply affected by The Oriental Exclusion Act of 1924, Jin becomes a familiar figure in a community of working women, seeking shelter from her past and her marriage, courageously facing decisions that would defeat a woman of less mettle.
Brennert describes a Honolulu rich with historical detail, colorful personalities, political factions, and an assortment of valuable friendships that define Jinís immigrant experience. Driven by the dramatic events of the era, this story literally tells itself as Jin navigates events and life decisions that affect her happiness and occasional prosperity, a Korean girl who crosses the ocean to her future.
In her new life across the ocean from the country of her birth, Jin faces significant trials and sorrows but rises above dire conditions with great courage and forgiveness. From toiling in the cane fields to sewing Aloha shirts in her own business, Jin embodies the challenges, rewards, and sometimes bitter lessons of the picture brides who suspend tradition to embrace an unknowable future.