Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Book Review: "Moloka'i"

"Moloka'i" by Alan Brennert
Published in 2003
My rating: 5 out of 5

It's always a nice surprise when a book turns out to be a lot better than I figured it would be. "Moloka'i" by Alan Brennert is a novel about the Kalaupapa leper quarantine colony on the Hawaiian island of Molokai. I didn't really know much about leprosy and I had never heard of Kalaupapa or even Molokai before moving to Hawaii, but if you know about those things then you wouldn't expect "Moloka'i" to be pleasant reading. I found it immensely enjoyable, however, because it's not just a novel of leprosy patients being ripped away from their families and sent to a primitive camp on a desolate part of Molokai. It is all that and more, but through the plot -- which at times is heart-wrenching -- comes the theme of finding joy, fulfillment, friendship, love and community despite all odds.

We follow the heroine of "Moloka'i," Rachel Kalama, from the time she's taken from her family and sent to live out her "death sentence" at Kalaupapa through her childhood and on. We fall in love with Rachel when we meet her, precocious and outgoing at age 7, and shadow her as she journeys through life, love and many losses at Kalaupapa. Rachel's form of leprosy is less severe than most and we're able to see the transformation of Kalaupapa, Hawaii, and the world through her eyes. Her life is both ordinary and extraordinary.

Hidden within the page-turning plot is a history of leprosy (aka Hansen's disease) and readers get to meet Father Damien, Kalaupapa's first and most revered patriarch. We're also with Rachel as she sees the glow of electricity on Kalaupapa for the first time, marvels at her first "talking picture," watches the first "aeroplane" fly over Kalaupapa and witnesses smoke billowing from the neighboring island of Oahu on December 7, 1941. "Moloka'i" also gives readers a history of the development of Oahu from a sleepy agricultrual community to the bustling vacation destination it is today, a glimpse into some fascinating Hawaiian legends, customs and culture, and even a look at the clash, and perhaps melding, of religions as Christianity made its way to the islands (did I mention one of the main characters is a nun?).

"Moloka'i" was a pleasure to read. Rachel's story, though fictitious, is based in fact and I learned a lot while reading Brennert's novel. I had already planned for us to take the mule tour down the pali (cliffs) to Kalaupapa whenever we get around to visiting Molokai and now the trip will have a whole new meaning to me. Instead of simply imagining the town populated by ravaged leprosy patients on death's doorstep, I'll be able to picture all the pure and simple living that went on there and for that I'm grateful.

Jarrod and I visited the Bishop Museum in Honolulu last weekend (it focuses on Hawaiian history) and this picture really helped me imagine the setting of the novel.

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