Moloka'i conjures visions of Honolulu in the 1890s as “a lush garden of hybrids” with its Florentine-style palace, wooden storefronts and frame homes, pictures of the Old West and tall New England-style church steeples.
To Rachel Kalama, the protagonist of this story, it was home. With two brothers, a sister, and numerous aunts and uncles, Rachel belonged to a warm, happy Hawaiian family. Her father worked on steamboats, traveling the world to faraway places like China, Japan and San Francisco, bringing stories and dolls from each port to his little girl who longed to visit these places herself.
Into this tranquil home life comes Rachel’s diagnosis of leprosy, at that time a little-known disease causing immense fear and outrage in the general population. Officials tear Rachel from her family, not only causing emotionally scars but shattering her dreams as easily and quickly as dropping a china cup.
The government sends Rachel to Kalaupapa, a “leper colony” on the island of Moloka’i, and she might never see her parents again with the expense of travel for a relatively poor Hawaiian family. Small consolation to a seven-year-old who has lost her parents for all intents and purposes, but she won’t be completely alone there. On arrival, she reunites with her beloved Uncle Pono and his “special friend” Haleola, a healer who accompanied her husband to the settlement more than 20 years before.
Alan Brennert has penned an exquisitely moving historical fiction novel. Rachel, a protagonist who pulls on the heartstrings from the start, a well-developed supporting cast and detailed descriptions that paint pictures in your mind make this novel a must-read. Warning: Keep a box of tissues nearby as you’ll have ample opportunity to use them—some are sad, some are happy and some nuzzle the spirit.
While the story centers on Rachel and her life, Brennert also tells the tale of a certain time and mindset. To survive without most of her blood relatives, Rachel must find a place for herself and create family where she can, learning the lesson that beauty stems from within and not without. Rachel isn’t alone in her struggles: her family, especially her mother, Dorothy, feel the hostility and revulsion from neighbors after Rachel’s diagnosis, a reaction that while appalling remains understandable. After all, it wasn’t so long ago that another little-known disease called AIDS caused people to panic, thinking they could catch it merely from touching someone.
Brennert also teaches us about the Hawaiian people, their culture, beliefs and customs. Many will gobble up the details of Hawaiian goddesses and other legends and rituals. While Hawaiians populated Kalaupapa, Christians in the form of priests and nuns oversaw the settlement, resulting in clashes you would expect between peoples with vastly different belief systems.
Brennert has clearly done his research, bringing readers to a different time and place. While Rachel is a fictional character, much of what she experience comes from journals, letters and other historical documents. Brennert delivers a book of heartbreak and happiness, but most of all, inspiration. I look forward to reading his upcoming novel, Honolulu.