I admit I picked up Moloka’i based on the cover. The lure of a Polynesian island, the bright colored hibiscus flowers, the young girl with a no doubt unique story. When I saw it on the list of my local library’s book discussion list, I thought, ok, good read for January, if I have to live in Wisconsin, I’ll at least escape to Hawai’i. I had no idea what I was in for.
The story of Moloka’i is a love story, that is if you’re looking from the author’s point of view. Alan Brennert fills the pages with historically accurate information about Native Hawai’ians and the early stigmas of leprosy. Brennert was working in the television world, writing for L.A. Law, which won him an Emmy, and also wrote and worked on productions of China Beach, Simon and Simon, and the 80’s revival of The Twilight Zone. When a production project he was working on with Kevin Costner’s Tig Productions never made it to air, he started a completely new project: the result, Moloka’i.
Rachel Kalama, a spirited seven-year-old Hawaiian girl, dreams of visiting far-off lands like her father, a merchant seaman. Then one day a rose-colored mark appears on her skin, and those dreams are stolen from her. Taken from her home and family, Rachel is sent to Kalaupapa, the quarantined leprosy settlement on the island of Moloka’i. Here her life is supposed to end—but instead she discovers it is only just beginning.
With a vibrant cast of vividly realized characters, Moloka’i is the true-to-life chronicle of a people who embraced life in the face of death. Such is the warmth, humor, and compassion of this novel that “few readers will remain unchanged by Rachel’s story”
I’m going to warn you, readers, cause like all of you, I’ve got a big pile of ‘to-read’ books, so I’m going to say that I LIKED this book, but I didn’t love it. Mainly, because it’s sad. You shouldn’t read Moloka’i if you’re looking for a feel-good, girl meets boy, normal growing pains kind of book. But I’d like to tell you why I think YOU SHOULD read Moloka’i.
I believe any book that opens our eyes to a different culture, especially when it’s done with such clear reverence for those individuals, is a worthy read. Like many who attended the book discussion that night, we knew there were leper colonies, but we couldn’t tell you where they were. The island of Moloka’i was one of them. The stereotypes and fears of leprosy then are similar to what many of us saw when AIDS first appeared in the media. People fear what they don’t understand. The nation didn’t know what caused the disease, how it was spread, or how to treat it. So they simply said, here’s paradise, but you can never leave it. Anyone who showed signs of the disease was taken from their family and sent to Kalaupapa. In Rachel’s case, she was so young, she lived with the nun’s at the school on Moloka’i.
Imagine living your whole life on one island. Living the same routine, eating the same foods, watching your friends die from disease. Part of that is Rachel’s story. But part of her story is about finding strength in yourself and making families wherever they come to you. A fascinating element to the book is the dichotomy of religion in Rachel’s life. Her mother was a vigorously converted Christian woman who sought to teach her children manners and respect. When Rachel is moved to Kalaupapa, she meets Haleola, a Hawai’ian medicine woman who teaches Rachel about the Hawai’ian gods and goddesses.
And there are others who become part of Rachel’s family. Sister Katherine is her caretaker, Nahoa teaches her to surf, and she meets Kenji, a man who comes to Moloka’i also afflicted with the disease and ostracized for his Japanese heritage. All of these individuals will teach Rachel a new form of freedom: what it means to be daring, to have fun, to love. Each person plays a role in her life and she as much in theirs.
It is rare to find a story that recounts a person’s life from the age of early childhood to maturity. How can one person’s story be so engrossing? To answer that, you’d simply have to read the book and get to know Rachel yourself.
What do you think? Had you known of these leper colonies before? Have you been to Kalaupapa? What other books have you read that have transpired one person’s life tale well?