May 14, 2013

Moloka'i by Alan Brennert

I'm not ashamed to admit I sobbed several times through the reading of this book.  It was a tragic, yet beautiful telling of life in a place where people were sent to die.  And it is probably one of the best books I've read in the last couple of years.

Rachel is a young girl when the first rosy signs of leprosy begin to appear on her skin.  Torn from her loving family, she is first hospitalized and then sent to Moloka'i, an island in Hawaii where a leper colony was formed.  There, she begins a new life, one born under the tutelage of the nuns who operate a school/dormitory for young girls with the disease, and also of a woman who becomes like a mother to her and teaches her the other ways of Hawaii.  It is in this small world that she will spend her life, trying to live as others do, and also hoping for a cure.

Rachel is a fantastic character.  She is exceptionally real and you can envision her exact story happening in real life.  And chances are it did.  Brennert said he studied journals and other sources of media to develop Rachel's character, so in all likelihood her story is real.  And she experiences so much in her life, despite being confined to the island, and you can see her character grow as the years pass and she deals with her disease.  And the other people of the colony were also very real.  Her uncle Pono, her aunt, and the numerous friends she had all shared that same resilience and want to live, despite being disfigured and shunned by the rest of society.  And Sister Catherine, a nun that was Rachel was close to, was really a guiding figure for the book despite having her own problems.  I think Brennert did a good job too of showing the shame that was felt and the stigma of leprosy among the population.  It is horrific how they were treated because medical science hadn't yet developed a cure and people were afraid of the unknown.

Even though there is no great action in this book (unless you count the bombing of Pearl Harbor, which the characters observed from a distance), it was just as exciting as any book I've read.  I think it was the depth and eloquence of the writing that did it.  You felt as if you were living life on this Leper colony right along with Rachel.  You felt for her and wanted to see a good outcome and happiness.  And the people around her were all a part of the telling, right down to the accents that Brennert gave them in dialogue.   I had actually never heard of Kalaupapa or Moloka'i before this book.  And didn't know the history of the leper colony there either and found it heartbreaking.   To know that these events happened in real life even though this book is fiction just further instills those feelings. 

This book is a hard one to review for me, because it was so excellent and because I can't share my excitement of it without telling you the whole plot.  Suffice to say it is one I definitely recommend.  It is an engaging book that will draw you in and make you not want to put it down, and leave you wanting more when it is finished.

Copyright 2003
389 pages

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