Fay Stanley’s The Last Princess: The Story of Princess Ka’iulani of Hawai’i
Book review by Monica Friedman
A Smart Biographical Picture Book about a Sad Chapter of American History
Many Americans remain unaware of the shameful, greedy land grab that constituted the annexation of Hawai’i to the United States, but the story recalled in this biography is one that should be remembered.
Princess Victoria Ka’iulani, Kalaninuiahilapalapa Kawekiu I Lunalino was born amidst great joy, destined to become queen and carry on the traditions of her ancestors, but her fate was tied up in the sovereignty of her nation, and her life, though inspirational, ended on a tragic note.
There is a fair amount of text here for a picture book, but the pages are lushly illustrated, providing a wonderful sense of place, first for the beauty of Ka’iulani’s island home, and then, later, for the places she travels as a young adult. In Hawai’i, native flora and fauna fill the pages, while architecture and other man-made objects appear as the princess moves through the world.
Her early life is idyllic: playing on her beachfront estate “with her giant turtle,” feeding peacocks, riding her pony. She is a “sweet-natured, merry child adored by family and servants alike.” However, her mother dies when the girl is still young, leaving her with the prophetic words, “You will go far away from you land and your people and be gone a very long time. You will never marry and you will never rule Hawai’i.”
As a teenager, she is sent to London to study all the subjects and “social graces that she would need when she became queen. Meanwhile, at home, foreign men were buying up all the land and “telling their kings what laws to pass and dictating who could vote and who could not.” They force the king to accept a new constitution and begin the process of taking over the country entirely.
After harassing him to death, they start in on the new queen, Ka’iulani’s aunt Lili’u. When she proves intractable, they plot an invasion with American marines.
Although only seventeen, Ka’iulani gathers her courage and travels to America to win the heart of the press and to beg President Cleveland to save her country. The president takes her side, but cannot take any action, choosing not to send American troops to fight American troops. He can only prevent the annexation during his presidency. The Hawaiians revolt, but are put down by the stronger force and when Ka’iulani finally returns home, it is on a sorrowful note.
Cleveland leaves office, Congress annexes the islands, and Ka’iulani grows reckless, and then sick: “The doctors called her illness inflammatory rheumatism, but some thought her real disease was despair.” She dies at the age of twenty-three, mourned by all the people who considered her their queen.
While there is great sorrow in The Last Princess: The Story of Princess Ka'iulani of Hawai'i, there is also a great sense of agency. The story is not so much about the loss of her kingdom as it is about the princess’s determination and her love for her people, her land, and her way of life.
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