Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Moloka'i by Alan Brennert

Moloka'i is the poignant tale of a young girl who is diagnosed with leprosy in the late 1800's, and sent to the leper colony on the island of Moloka'i, in the Hawaiian islands. Rachel Kalama is the baby of her close knit family. Growing up in Honolulu, the world is her playground, until one day an odd wound is discovered on her leg - her mother is able to keep it covered up, and warns the children not to tell anyone about it. One day, Rachel and her sister Sarah get into a knock-down, drag 'em out fight, and Sarah calls Rachel a "dirty leper" during the midst of it. The health inspector is waiting for Rachel when she gets home. She is removed from her family and taken to a hospital for testing, ultimately ending up at the leper colony on Moloka'i, far removed from friends and family.

Due to the extreme toll leprosy seemed to take on the Hawaiian natives and the lack of knowledge of communicable diseases, the Moloka'i settlement was created so that lepers would not be spreading their illness to others. What was not taken into account was the effect this isolation had on the patients' emotional and mental well-being. Despite the fact Rachel's uncle and girlfriend were already living on the island, Rachel had to move into a boarding school for girls, run by nuns. Here, Rachel grows into a young woman, forging relationships with both other patients and nuns that will span a lifetime. The book follows the course of her life - her loves, her losses, her triumphs and her defeats. Despite being banished to a remote island due to her illness, Rachel manages to live a full and satisfying life.

I do not want to give too much away, as I want you to fall in love with Rachel yourself, as I did. She is a strong and incorrigible spirit who fights for what and who she believes in. Despite being handed the equivalent of a death sentence when banished to Moloka'i, Rachel chooses life and love over death and misery. She refuses to be defined by her illness. Not only was Rachel's tale inspiring, the story of Moloka'i - a real place - was also intriguing. This book is a fine work of historical fiction, mixing just the right amount of fact with fiction, and I look forward to reading Brennert's latest, Honolulu.

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