Hawaii deserves its reputation as an exotic paradise. Coco palms wave to the warm ocean. Bold bromeliads and tall torch ginger fill groomed ...

Share story

“Honor Killing”

by David E. Stannard

Penguin Press, 478 pp., $25.95

Hawaii deserves its reputation as an exotic paradise. Coco palms wave to the warm ocean. Bold bromeliads and tall torch ginger fill groomed gardens and simple median strips. Add its mix of Asian and European populations, and you know you are in a welcoming place.

David E. Stannard gives us a darker view of life in paradise in his new nonfiction work, “Honor Killing: How the Infamous ‘Massie Affair’ Transformed Hawaii.”

In 1931 and 1932, two criminal trials gripped Hawaii and the nation. In the first, five nonwhite Honolulu men were accused of gang-raping Thalia Massie, the young wife of a U.S. naval officer. In the second, the famous Clarence Darrow served as defense attorney for Thalia’s husband, Ted, and mother, Grace Hubbard Bell Fortescue, accused with two others of murdering Joseph Kahahawai, one of the men acquitted in the first trial.

While other books have recounted the trials’ proceedings, Stannard’s lives up to its subtitle and explains how racism affected the trials’ proceedings, and how the case polarized the white and nonwhite populations. The first trial ended in a 10-2 hung jury. The second jury voted for conviction, despite Darrow’s rousing defense of the mother and husband. In a judgment appalling to all native Hawaiians, the guilty received only one hour of confinement.

Stannard, a professor of American studies at the University of Hawaii, backgrounds his characters with plentiful detail, giving context to the prejudices of the times. Thalia was born and raised a blueblood from back East. Her father was a cousin of Teddy Roosevelt, she was educated at private boarding schools and, when married at 18, she took on the trappings of the upper class, even if her parents had no real money. Her black acquaintances were servants. Her husband, Ted, was from Kentucky, where lynching was still common.

The islands were, and remain, a stew of native Hawaiians and longtime immigrants from China, Japan, Portugal and elsewhere, with whites in the minority. What Stannard does so well in “Honor Killing” is to use the islanders’ experience of learning to live together, with all the highs and lows, to explain the complex feelings of each juror, each attorney and even peripheral characters such as the governor of the Territory of Hawaii (which was not yet a state).

For instance, at the turn of the century, when plantation workers tried to organize unions, white owners encouraged fissures between the races, Chinese against Japanese, to sidetrack labor unity.

There is not a lot of suspense in the recounting of these sensational crimes. We learn early on that Thalia was not raped. But at the advent of the second trial and the hiring of Darrow, famous for the Scopes trial on teaching evolution, the narrative of the second trial becomes engulfing.

By the conclusion, Stannard’s straight and unembellished delivery of the facts softens. He gives an eloquent summary of how the trials changed the perception of Paradise as a safe oasis bathed by sun and protected by a warm ocean to a complex land with many conflicts. The idealism of the islands was extinguished by the Massie case. Justice did not prevail.