Review: Moloka'i

Moloka'i Moloka'i by Alan Brennert
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is one of the most moving novels of historical fiction that I've ever read. I played book hooky to continue to listen to the audiobook, instead of making progress on other book commitments, because I just didn't want to put it down.

The story of Rachel, a sufferer of Hansen's Disease (leprosy) who is sent at the tender age of six to live on Moloka'i, in the Kalaupapa leper colony, Brennert gives the reader a sense of the isolation of those held in the settlement on Moloka'i. Isolated from contact with others due to the poorly understood disease, Rachel is consoled by her uncle Pono her only family member who also suffers from the disease. Over the course of many decades, Rachel grows to adulthood, falls in love with a fellow patient named Kenji, marries, and gives birth to Ruth, a child surrendered for adoption because Rachel and her husband Kenji wanted her to have a chance of a normal life. They live through the period of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, WWII, and at its end Rachel loses Kenji in an violent act by a disabled veteran. She witnesses the Halawa tsunami of 1946, which devastated portions of Moloka'i, Maui and the Big Island of Hawai'i, killing 159 people. Eventually treated with sulfa drugs that attenuated the disease, she is paroled from Moloka'i in her sixties and goes in search of her family.

While the story is often heartbreaking and shows the ghastly aspects of Hansen's Disease in the era when it was little understood and virtually incurable, I found the depiction of American colonialism to be fascinating. While there are plenty of good haoles in this story, the underlying history of America in Hawai'i is not one of which to be proud. The internment of leprosy patients under disgraceful conditions is a shameful legacy in Hawai'i. You can read more about Kalaupapa here and here.

I read Moloka'i because I received the ARC of its long-awaited sequel, Daughter of Moloka'i, which I'll be reviewing later this month. I cannot recommend this first novel highly enough.

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