Friday, August 15, 2008

Book Review - Moloka'i by Alan Brennert

Don't assume by the length of time it took me to read this book that I didn't like it. I started it sometime last week and fully expected to finish it by the end of the week. However, life got in the way, and it took me almost a full week longer to finally get it read.

Moloka'i is the story of Rachel, a Hawaiian girl who develops leprosy at the age of seven and is sent to the island of Moloka'i which is the site of a leper colony. I was afraid the book would be depressing and bleak, but it really wasn't. I learned so much from this book. I wasn't aware that the Hawaiian people were (are?) very susceptible to developing leprosy and that there was such an epidemic of the disease. I loved this book - in fact, it makes my list of favorites. Don't be dissuaded by the subject matter - this is a lovely book.
Thanks to SOMER @

"Moloka’i is a big, generous, compassionate, beautifully rendered epic novel about a largely forgotten, largely ignored chapter in Hawaiian and American history. Alan Brennert has written an exquisitely textured tale of darkness and light, tragedy and the triumph of the human spirit, filled with original, fully realized characters who walk right off the page and into our hearts."

-Jim Fergus, author of One Thousand White Women: The Journals Of May Dodd

"Love, marriage, divorce, was the same here as anywhere else, wasn't it?....The pali [cliff] wasn't a headstone and Kalaupapa [a leper colony] wasn't a grave. It was a community like any other, bound by ties deeper than most, and people here went to their deaths as people did anywhere: with great reluctance, dragging the messy jumble of their lives behind them."

I confess that I have been haunted by the story of the leper colony on Moloka'i for years and have read other books about Father Damien, who spent sixteen years ministering to patients before he himself died in 1889 of leprosy (as Hansen's disease was then called). Hawaiians were particularly vulnerable to this disease, having lived in isolation on their Pacific islands until the arrival of the white men who brought it.

A couple of years ago, my interest in the human story of the colony was piqued by James Brocker's book, The Lands of Father Damien, in which he memorialized as many of the people from the colony as he could document, including over a hundred photographs of the individuals confined to the colony, the buildings in which they lived, and the activities which made up their day. By far the most moving photographs were those of the small children, all of whom had been wrested from their families, sometimes by bounty-hunters, and sent to live-and meet their deaths-among complete strangers in the Kalaupapa settlement on the island of Moloka'i. One child, Beka, was only four when he arrived alone from Maui to spend the three short years remaining of his life away from his parents, brothers, and sisters.

Alan Brennert's novel Moloka'i is based on serious research into the history of this colony (and includes Brocker's book in the Author's Note). Like Brocker he chooses to focus on the human tragedy, both of individual sufferers and of those families who, while free from the disease themselves, were ostracized by their neighbors and employers because of their association with a patient. But he also emphasizes the personal triumphs of many of these patients, and that is a story which has long needed telling. Instead of elaborating on the horrors of the disease in order to build up drama, as a less skillful writer might have done, Brennert recognizes their dignity and respects them. Though no book about leprosy and the colony at Kalaupapa can ever be free from profound sadness, Brennert avoids turning this novel into a ten-hanky tearjerker, focusing instead on the lives the patients create for themselves and on their attempts at normalcy.

Rachel Kalama, the main character, is a typical 5-year-old growing up in a loving family in Honolulu when her mother first sees a sore on Rachel's leg which will not heal. Fearing what this may mean, not just to Rachel but to the rest of the family, she bandages it and makes Rachel wear long skirts. For over a year she succeeds in keeping Rachel's condition a secret, until one of her siblings lets the secret out during an argument at school. Rachel is taken by the health inspector, who receives a bounty for capturing her, and sent to a Honolulu hospital for sufferers of the disease. The trauma of separation from the only life she has ever known is bad enough, but at least she is in Honolulu, where she can see her family, even at a distance. When Rachel is sent to Kalaupapa a year later, however, her isolation-at the age of seven-is total.

The "family" she develops in Kalaupapa, her friendships with other young children, and her refusal to let the disease (or any of the nuns) control her spirit make her life bearable, and the reader will admire her pluck even while dreading what her future holds. Yet Rachel is one of those in whom the disease develops very slowly, and her story continues through her teen years, her marriage, and well beyond. Through the lively Rachel, Brennert shows the history of the Kalaupapa settlement, the history of treatment for leprosy (Hansen's disease), and the history of Hawaii itself, including the seizure of the Queen and the annexation and colonization of the islands by the American sugar barons (events which clearly parallel Rachel's story). The misconceptions about the spread of the disease and the ostracism of innocent families are brought to life through episodes about Rachel's family and those of her friends at Kalaupapa.

The Christianity of the nuns who work at the settlement sometimes comes into conflict with the centuries-old Hawaiian religious beliefs and mythology of their patients, which the nuns regard as paganism, contributing further to the isolation of the patients and adding to the instability of their lives. Yet Rachel's long, abiding friendship with Sister Catherine, an important part of the book, is built on mutual respect, and Catherine becomes one of the book's most vividly realized characters.

Brennert enriches his novel by incorporating events described in real documents and journals in the Hawaii archives into his story of the settlement, from its lawless, "wild West" atmosphere at the outset, to its final development as a "home" for the people who live there. (Thirty-one people, now completely cured of the disease through sulfa drugs, still reside, voluntarily, in Kalaupapa.) He includes many real people among the fictional characters, thereby informing a new audience of the unselfish service of doctors, administrators, nuns like Sister Catherine, and enlightened patients themselves toward bettering the lives of the people of Kalaupapa. Even Robert Louis Stevenson, who visited the settlement, plays a cameo role. The reader observes the community as it becomes more "normal," with marching bands, sports teams, celebrations, and even horse races (with the patients as riders), along with facilities such as bakeries, general stores, and laundries.

While we have no way of knowing if Brennert's depiction of the life Rachel and others lived in the settlement may be a bit rosy-colored, it is the kind of life we would hope these patients could enjoy. Though there is melodrama and sentimentality here, it flows naturally from the subject and the author's desire to present the full historical record. Few readers will remain unchanged by Rachel's story. As one character says, "How we choose to live with pain, or injustice, or the true measure of the Divine within us."
(reviewed by Mary Whipple JAN 11, 2004)


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