Author Mary Pfaff, celebrated at the height of her career as “the Beatrix Potter of Hawaii,” was born about 1875 in Brockton, Minnesota. A gifted artist from an early age, she worked as an illustrator for the local paper, the Brockton Bugle, from the time that she was 16. In 1897, at the age of twenty-two, she moved to Hawaii to work at the Hawaiian Gazette, a semi-weekly publication of the Honolulu Advertiser. She started in the advertising department, where she met and soon married William Apana, a local businessman. Mary reportedly did some illustration for the Gazette and other newspapers, but this is difficult to verify as much of the work is unsigned.
In 1903, the completion of the Pacific Cable enabled news to travel across the ocean almost instantaneously. The Gazette, and Mary, thrived for the next fifteen years until October 18, 1918, when editor Roderick O. Matheson resigned and took a position in Tokyo. The Gazette was shuttered, and Mary Pfaff was suddenly without employment.
The Great War was gaining momentum, and William’s business was prospering, allowing Mary to stay home comfortably. She soon found herself in the family way, and Mildred Pfaff Apana was born. Mary applied her considerable energy and drive to her new maternal duties.
Mary wrote and illustrated the Alice the Mongoose stories to entertain her young daughter. William, upon seeing his little girl’s delight in hearing the adventures of Alice and her friends, arranged to have Mary’s sketches and stories printed as hardcover books.
The Alice Mongoose books quickly became popular among local families. Hawaii children enjoyed seeing familiar landscapes, like the cane field where Alice Mongoose and Alistair Rat lived. Visitors to Hawaii enjoyed the books as reminders of pleasant vacations.
Mary Pfaff and her daughter Mildred both passed away in 1974 in a tragic waterskiing accident during a family vacation in Kauai. Mildred was 56, and Mary was 99. Mildred had divorced years earlier, leaving her own daughter Dorothy sole heir to the Pfaff-Apana fortune.
Local tastes began to change in the early 1980s. With the rise of the Hawaiian Renaissance, the Alice Mongoose series came to be seen as outdated and problematic, privileging Alice and Alistair’s “foreign” perspective while relegating native characters like Penni Pueo the owl to peripheral roles. Alice went out of print and was, for a while, forgotten.
Alice has enjoyed a renaissance of her own in recent years, thanks largely to the efforts of Mary Pfaff’s granddaughter and heir, Dorothy Pfaff, who has proudly claimed her grandmother’s maiden name. A new generation of parents and children have come to appreciate the books’ unselfconscious multiculturalism, sensible life lessons, and positive female main character.
This reissue of the Alice the Mongoose series was conducted in close consultation with Dorothy Pfaff. Any enhancements to the Alice Mongoose and Alistair Rat Books are in keeping with the way Dorothy remembers her mother and grandmother reading to her.