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Hawaii has long been the darling of travel agents, an exotic destination full of beauty and perfection. But as gifted storyteller Tara Bray Smith writes in West of Then, even paradise has a dark side.
By MARGO HAMMOND
Published November 4, 2004
[Photo: Simon & Schuster]
|In a photo that graces the cover of West of Then, Tara Bray Smith plays in the water with her mother, Karen Morgan. Morgan, then a heroin addict, gave up her daughter when the girl was 7.|
|ABOVE: Tara Bray Smith, with her mother in 1988, takes us on a tour of Hawaii that the tourism bureaus bypass.
AT RIGHT: Tara Bray Smith captivates the reader by telling good stories in a simple, straightforward style.
Tara Bray Smith lives in a large loft in the DUMBO (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass) area of Brooklyn, which has a fantastic view of the Manhattan skyline. She is a graduate of Dartmouth and Columbia University and has just published her first book, a memoir with the evocative title West of Then.
But before you turn green with envy, consider this: Smith's apartment is a three-story walkup where she cooks on a hot plate (the place has no stove) and showers with a jury-rigged canister. She has to step up to her toilet, which has been elevated to accommodate the bizarre plumbing of the building whose first floor is a stinky paper recycling warehouse.
"I basically live over a dump," Smith says, laughing.
Oh, and her mother sleeps in a cardboard box in Honolulu's Triangle Park with other homeless people.
Paradise is not always what it seems.
Born and raised in Hawaii, Smith has seen the other side of sun-kissed beaches and umbrella-spiked drinks. She was born 34 years ago to Karen Morgan, a fifth generation descendant of wealthy sugar plantation owners, and Kirk Smith, a surfer boy from Pacific Palisades, during the time her hippie parents would refer to as the summer of free love. Except that it was fall and the love wasn't so free.
"Karen Morgan gave me up twenty-five years ago, when I was seven," she writes in West of Then (Simon & Schuster, $24). "She was a heroin addict and couldn't take care of me. My father and my stepmother raised me, educated me, sent me to college. I don't know why I think my mother is my responsibility, but I do."
But what about the reader? Inundated with memoirs of troubled childhoods and dysfunctional families, why should we be attracted to this one? Why should we care about a Hawaiian family who lost its fortune and whose eldest child lost her way?
Because Smith makes us care.
A natural storyteller, Smith immediately pulls us into her narrative. She weaves tales of her rebellious mother, her dysfunctional family, Hawaii and that paradise's swelling homeless population into a seamless whole. She first lures us in by telling good stories in simple, straightforward prose, grabbing us the way our mothers did with bedtime tales. Then she delivers the kicker, one simple, melancholic line that carries the weight of truth. An old boyfriend called those little twists the "sadification" of her stories.
Here's an example. West of Then opens in Honolulu. It is Thanksgiving 2002. The author is looking for her mother, who has called with the news that she is homeless. As Smith waits on a park bench for her mother to appear, she remembers her first year at Dartmouth. Her boyfriend, who was taking a course in New England history, told her the story behind Thanksgiving. The Pilgrims were unprepared for the North American winter because they made a mistake, he told her. They thought that because America was on the same latitude as Spain, the winters would be mild. Many of them froze and died that first winter. During the second winter, the Indians came with maize and turkey and they celebrated Thanksgiving. In other words, the holiday was the result of a weather miscalculation.
And Smith's kicker? "How sad," she writes, "to be so disappointed by a place you thought would change everything."
"The whole story was in the service of that line," Smith admits. We are seated at a diner on Third Street in Manhattan's Murray Hill district and I have asked her about her writing technique. "If you are going to make grand statements about the world, they have to be earned," she says. "Simplicity has to be earned." Her Thanksgiving tale sets the time of her story, but it also provides one of Smith's themes.
"People often move west, seeking to change everything," she points out. Smith's great-great-great-uncle Valdemar Knudsen came to the New World to get away from Norway. He ended up in Hawaii and was soon joined by his nephew, Hans Peter Faye, the author's great-great grandfather. "It was a mythology I inherited: If we can just go to the next farthest horizon . . ."
Often when people get to that horizon, nothing really changes. Portland and San Francisco have a homeless problem, Smith points out. So does Hawaii. The cities are filled with people who headed "west of then," a phrase Smith says she picked as the title for her book because it reminded her of From Here to Eternity. "It has a story feel to it."
By moving to New York, Smith has elected to go not west, but east of her childhood. But, like her mother who is still struggling against her demons in Honolulu, Smith has not escaped the islands completely. She wrote this book, after all, gazing out at the island of Manhattan.
"At night the lights and the shadows of the buildings give the city an odd resemblance to the jagged mountains of my childhood," she writes. "And perhaps this is what happens in any case to our childhoods. We transform them into shining things so we can move on."At a glance
Tara Bray Smith appears at 11:15 a.m. Sunday in Forrer Classroom 120.
[Last modified November 3, 2004, 12:51:18]