I've never been to Hawai'i, but if someone were to ask me to describe the islands, certain imagery comes to mind: exotic, lush, beautiful, and tranquil, rich in custom and history....in short, a paradise. It's a place where dreams come true. After reading Alan Brennert's powerful Moloka'i, however, I now realize the beauty of the place belies the dark past of those islands, where amidst the deep blue waters of the Pacific Ocean and swaying palm trees, families were readily torn apart because of a little-known disease.
The story begins in 1891 when 7-year-old Rachel Kalama notices a small sore on her leg. Not an unusual thing for a rambunctious child, right? But Rachel, as all Hawaiians who showed any outward signs of illness at that time, was quickly arrested and shipped to Kalaupapa where, away from her parents and siblings, she was to live her presumably shortened life among the others who had contracted leprosy (later it was noted that the colony actually suffered from Hansen's disease).
Whenever I read historical fiction, I try to remind myself that authors take broad creative license. However, Brennert's well-researched and well-written story is filled with compassion, hope and urgency that are palpable; the characters come alive in its pages. Although Rachel is fictitious, she is a voice representing hundreds of people who really lived on the jagged cliffs of Kalaupapa and whose eyes and hearts remained hopeful even as their faces and bodies became disfigured with a cruel disease.
It would be difficult for me to write about this book without giving too much away, but it has haunted me since long after I closed the back cover. The story moved me to do my own research on Moloka'i and its inhabitants, and about Father Damien, the man who worked tirelessly through the years to restore dignity to those individuals who called the island home.
Although the image of Hawai'i has changed in this reader's mind, I am glad to have found Brennert's book and to have learned a little more about the resiliency of the human spirit.
Recommended by Priscilla Garvin