After reading Alan Brennert's novel, Honolulu, about a Korean mail-order bride, I knew that this was one author that I needed to keep reading. I was impressed by his literary style and the characters that he created within a historical base. This is probably one of my favourite sorts of novels, and with Mr. Brennert's work, I knew that I had found someone to keep reading.
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In Moloka'i, his first novel, we meet Rachel, a happy, sunny-natured little girl who is the baby of her family. Her mother is stern, but very protective of her children and her father is adored, but often far away working as a seaman on a freighter to provide for his family. Her older brothers and sister scrap and fight like any other children do, and Rachel finds herself in a tight-knit family's love. The time is Honolulu just before the turn of the twentieth century, and Rachel has no idea that a terrible calamity is about to befall her and those she loves.
An uncle, Pono, comes down with the dreaded disease leprosy, and is exiled to the settlement on the island of Moloka'i. For Rachel it is an introduction to the harsher realities of life, and when she shows signs of the same illness, her family rallies around and tries to hide the illness from everyone -- there is no appeal for the sentence of exile and quarantine. But when her older sister slips and makes a comment, Rachel finds herself first quarantined in Honolulu, away from her beloved family, and everything that she knows.
She is, after all, just five years old...
I'm not going to reveal anything more about this novel as I really do not want to ruin it for anyone else. I was, quite simply, blown away by it. Rachel is a resourceful, inventive girl, and who is driven to never giving up, even in the face of a debilitating and disfiguring disease. She is quite determined to have a life, in spite of the odds against her -- and she is able to make friends, meet someone very special in her life, and have an unexpected miracle happen.
The secondary characters are just as interesting, from Sister Catherine, a Franciscan nun who works with tending the sick lepers, and running a boarding school for the young girls, Uncle Pono and the woman he lives with who become surrogate parents for Rachel, Ken Utagawa, a young university graduate whose life is shattered by leprosy, and Leilani, a beautiful and unusual young woman from Honolulu. Everyone has their own voice in this one, and I felt that I got to know all of them very well, enough to where I could meet them on the street and know who they are. That's always growing to be a rare talent in writing these days, and I always do appreciate it when I encounter it.
Most of all, it is the author's love of Hawai'i and the people's culture and history that shines through in this novel from beginning to end. It is a place that I know very little about, and have rarely encountered in books, but one that I certainly want to know better. Devastated by the diseases and greed that outsiders brought with them when they encountered the Hawai'ians in the late eighteenth century, I was amazed by the people's ability to persevere and stay themselves.
One of the more unwelcome gifts that the haoles brought was what is now called Hansen's Disease, known more by its terrifying term, leprosy. It is an affliction that attacks both nerves and soft tissues, leaving behind disfiguring scars and the loss of the sensation of touch. For centuries, lepers have been shunned by society, and the disease thought to be caused from immorality of the soul, instead of the scientific one that the disease is communicable. Even in Rachel's society it was judged to be God's punishment on the sinner and caused by the sufferer's own lack of faith and belief, all of which caused terrible treatment and abuse.
At the core of this story is the lack of justice and treatment of those on Moloka'i, and the eventual breakthroughs in medicine that while it did not cure leprosy, did manage to give some semblance of a life back to those who had been devastated by it.
The author includes an afternote talking about the setting of the novel, and the sources that he used, as well as a map of the Hawai'ian islands and Moloka'i.
This was a very good novel to read, full of insights and real human stories of people based in fact. I was touched by their story, and their humanity, and the facts of the terrible odds that they faced in just staying alive. Very much recommended. Five stars overall.
2003; St. Martin's Press, New York