West of Then

West of Then: A Mother, a Daughter, and a Journey Past Paradise recounts Tara Bray Smith’s 2002 search for her homeless, drug-addicted mother in the seedy parks and streets of downtown Honolulu. Bray, called away from her life in New York City by the news that her mother had not been heard from in six months, travels back to the land of her birth and reflects upon not only her own personal history, but the history of the Hawaiian Islands themselves as she re-visits her old haunts.

Bray’s mother, Karen Morgan, is a descendant of the Mayflower, a fifth generation white Hawaiian from a once prominent family of wealthy sugar barons. She gradually deteriorates from a beautiful, reckless “flower child” in the 1960’s to a homeless junkie and sometime prostitute, leaving several failed marriages and three daughters (with three different fathers) in her wake. Although Karen abandons her daughter at age seven to be raised by her father and his second wife, Tara remains loyal to her mother despite countless betrayals and disappointments, never quite giving up hope of rehabilitation.

Although Smith’s technique of weaving her personal and family narrative into Hawaiian history is effective, the frequent time shifts can make the narrative unnecessarily confusing. However, her depiction of contemporary Hawaii and the parallels she draws between her mother’s deterioration and the decline of the islands themselves is effective. Most moving are the encounters between mother and daughter; the mother clearly beyond redemption and the daughter unwilling or unable to completely give up hope.