Synopses & Reviews
A dazzling, devastating memoir about one woman's search for her wayward mother, whose past is inextricably linked with the bittersweet history of their home, Hawaii.
At the center of West of Then is Karen Morgan -- island flower, fifth generation haole (white) Hawaiian, Mayflower descendant -- now living on the streets of downtown Honolulu. Despite her recklessness, Karen inspires fierce loyalty and love in her three daughters. When she goes missing in the spring of 2002, Tara, the eldest, sets out to find andhopefully save her mother. Her journey explores what you give up when you try to renounce your past, whether personal, familial, or historical, and what you gain when you confront it.
A tender story that lays bare the anguish, candor, and humor of growing up a half-step off the beat, West of Then is a striking literary debut from a perceptive and original writer. By turns tough and touching, Smith's modern detective story unravels the rich history of the fiftieth state and the realities of contemporary Hawaii -- its sizable homeless population, its drug subculture -- as well as its generous, diverse humanity and astonishing beauty. In this land of so many ghosts, the author's search for her mother becomes a reckoning with herself, her family, and with the meaning of home.
"First-time memoirist Smith has spent most of her adult life on the East Coast, swapping the palm trees and leis of her Hawaiian childhood for subways and argyle sweaters. Not that she can be blamed for trying to distance herself from her roots. A descendant of an upper-class, white family, Smith's drug-addicted mother abandoned Smith when she was seven. Their family's saga resembles 'a Faulkner sketch that had stumbled off to Honolulu. Plumeria instead of magnolia, but the setpieces were the same....' Although geographically separated from her wandering mother, Smith maintains a fierce attachment to her that ultimately brings her back to Hawaii. She draws on memories to tell of the search for her mother, who, homeless and using, disappears in 2002. The narrative dips back into turning points of Smith's upbringing to illustrate the experience of adoring a mother who often abandons her child, sometimes willfully, and sometimes because she's simply become distracted by a new lover or an old drug habit. Smith masterfully recounts Hawaii's history; the rise and fall of her family's fortunes parallel Hawaii's development. And Smith's Hawaiian experience differs from that of most nonwhite Hawaiians, resulting in an intriguing read. Agent, Richard Abate. (Oct.) Forecast: A first serial in the New Yorker, a nine-city author tour and national ads should put this on the map." Publishers Weekly (Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Unapologetic and affecting debut memoir.... A terrifying testament." Kirkus
"[Smith's] sense of place and of history amplifies the narrative.... She has a sharp descriptive eye [and] honestly plumbs the guilt, rage, love, and pity that she feels toward her mother." New Yorker