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West of Then: A Mother, A Daughter, and a Journey Past Paradise    by Tara Bray Smith order for
West of Then
by Tara Bray Smith
Order:  USA  Can
Simon & Schuster, 2004 (2004)
* *   Reviewed by J. A. Kaszuba Locke

Reliant on conversations with others, and her own memory of events, Tara Bray Smith debuts with her memoirs in West of Then, confronting her Hawaiian past, and present life. Through personal narrative, traveling back and forth in time, the author faces a reckoning about her mother, Karen Morgan, whose family records include one of Hawaii's founding families named Faye.

Karen gave birth to four daughters, the first of whom she gave up for adoption. The remaining three (Tara, Lauren, and Layla) weaved through an often traumatic childhood into present-day adulthood. Karen is an addict, clean at times, and seemingly in need of constant male companionship. The first time Tara was abandoned was at seven years of age - she and her sisters were often left in public places, her mother telling them she needed to go to the store. At times Karen returned within hours, at others not until the next morning. When Tara traveled as a minor, between locations in Hawaii and other U.S. states, she was left at the airport for hours before Karen would show to pick her up. Tara writes, 'Karen Morgan gave me up twenty-five years ago, when I was seven. She was a heroin addict and couldn't take care of me ... I don't know why I think my mother is my responsibility, but I do.'

Tara has lived both with Karen, and with her dad and stepmother, who provided for her education at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. After Tara made a place for herself in New York, she was uprooted by phone calls from her mother, when Tara would return to Hawaii to search for Karen. Smith unravels her home life, and also discusses the history of Hawaii and of locations such as Oahu, and Honolulu and its Triangle Park, a place for many homeless, prostitutes, and addicts. Underlying Tara's memoirs are both bad scenarios of her family life and happy times. Tara's writing contains descriptions of the beauty of her homeland, as well as its seamy side. She has often had to search for her mother, to bring her to a rehabilitation home, after which she disappears again. In 2001, there was a reunion of sisters and mother with first-born Elsie, renamed Claire by her adoptive parents. Now, at age 32, Tara retains her love for her mother, siblings, father, and extended family.

At first glance, I was disillusioned with Smith's jumping back and forth in generations from chapter to chapter, and within the chapters themselves. But I soon realized that memoirs don't occur in static order, i.e. from one day or year to the next, and I cannot deny the appeal of the author's poetic descriptions, and her handling of the delicacy of the subject matter. Tara tells of her life without the smallest bit of judgment of her mother, and adds splashes of wit. Though some readers may acquire a disjointed feeling from reading Tara's memoirs, I enjoyed and highly recommend West of Then.

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