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?
You can’t always go home again. That’s the saying, right? Everything is going to look different, feel different, be different, cause in most cases, it’s not your home anymore. It’s the memory that exists, and the adventures spent growing up. This past week, I did go home again. I thankfully took a week of vacation to both attend the Writers Institute Conference and spend some quality time at home with the family. Of course, after attending the conference I kept leaving my family to go write for hours. In case you were wondering, yes, it was wonderful. But you can’t escape a small town forever, as hard as you might try. Everywhere I went I learned about another one of my classmates getting married, moving somewhere, having a kid, etc. and then they’d ask me, what are you doing now? Me? Oh, I’m writing. I mean, I manage 20 sales associates at a department store, and I’m writing…again. Kind of…well, I have a blog…actually…I’m writing about growing up in this town. *Kill. Me. Now.* What is it that makes us so competitive and comparing of others when we go home? Please, someone tell me it goes away with age.
On this trip home, I kept thinking about the same places I used to go to all the time while growing up, and about how they’ve changed. Take for example, the movie theater. My mother was good friends with the owner, so she and I would go see movies together when I was little. I remember going to see the Christmas movie, Prancer, with my mom, and the owner came to our house one day and gave me a copy of the book too. Now, the theater looks like this:
Where I was standing to take the photo used to be the screen room! Now it’s a parking lot. And the building was knocked down and rebuilt into a storage space and public restroom. Not exactly entertaining.
Some of the improvements made in town are wonderful. The library was able to remodel and expand and it is simply breathtaking. (Of course, knocking down the cinema so many years ago only helped the library’s case in this feat. If you can’t watch the silver screen, the town will have to read about it instead! lol.)
I find the library’s expansion uplifting. In a town where three video rentals have closed up due to one Redbox and some netflix subscriptions, it’s nice to know the library is still meeting people’s needs and able to improve and advance its services.
One change, though its most likely proven itself to be safer, more useful, more commercial, and generally more welcoming, will forever make me sad. The old railroad bridge.
You can see it’s not bad. I’m all for bikes and encouraging outdoor activity. But I LOVED that old railroad bridge more than anything else in that town. Granted, the bridge didn’t look like it did in the first picture when I was growing up, but it really wasn’t far from it. The steel rails on the sides of the bridge were gone, but the tracks were still there. The wood was rotting and weathered. The guard rails thoroughly rusted. The wooden planks underneath were spacious and a safety risk for children. But if you were brave enough to cross that bridge, you were somebody. And me and my friends, hung out on the bridge, late at night staring down at the river below and watching the reflection of the street lights from the town on the water. So many memories on that old bridge. Staying up all night to watch the sunrise (turned out to be cloudy all day that day), making up stories about the fishermen that only came out at night, feeding the ducks old bits of bread, saying ‘I love you’ for the first time, and meaning it.
Walking along the bridge now, it didn’t feel special to me. It felt crowded. Too many people were walking past me this time. The river didn’t look as special standing at the railing instead of swinging my legs back and forth over the water. I was feeling pretty down, ready to start ranting to the next person whizzing by on their bicycle or walking across with a tackle box. They had no right! But I stopped myself, and started thinking about where I live now. Where did I go when I needed some space, and what view was special to me in my new town. The answer was easy. The old bridge in the marsh. The boards are made of wood, the best side view has a giant tree knocked over into the river and the water collects and pools over the branches to wash down the way. I didn’t feel misplaced or upset anymore. I felt like I was in the right place in my life right now. I didn’t belong to this small town anymore, but I grew up in it. And now I’ve made some roots in a slightly bigger town, but one that still speaks to me, one with an old, wooden bridge in it. I can’t say how long I’ll stay here, but if I do ever move, I hope I find another old bridge to cross when I’m feeling lost.
Do you ever feel misplaced going home again? What place is special to you? What places or things remind you of home in a new way?