Monday, April 29, 2013

Moloka'i by Alan Brennert

I am not sure I have ever read a book that caused me to nearly wipe a tear away with every turn of the page. Moloka'i  affected me in such a way and I don't really know why. Granted, the premise of the book was sad, but there was also a spirit of survival and compassion, and even a joie de vivre amidst a life of struggle.

Beginning in 1891, Moloka'i, recounts the life of Rachel Kalama. We meet Rachel as a happy and really carefree little girl. Her whole life changes when she develops a rash on her thigh and some lesions on her feet. Attired in long dresses and forbidden to remove her shoes became a way of life for two years until an incident on the playground. She is discovered to have leprosy (Hansen's Disease) and is forcibly removed from her parents and family to Kalaupapa, Moloka'i. There she must live in quarantine with others who are suffering from the disease. Although she has an uncle living on the island, she must stay in a dormitory for young girls. She is cared for by a cadre of nurses, including Sister Mary Catherine Voorhies, one of the Franciscan sisters. Sister Mary Catherine becomes a confidant of Rachel as the young girl grows up and continues to provide moral and psychological support as she ages. 

We are witness to this amazing person, Rachel, who lives as normal a life as can be possible. She is fortunate that the disease has not progressed as rapidly as it has in others. She is seen as one who strives to overcome the devastating blow that has been dealt to her. She lives her life to the fullest, finding freedom in surfing and eventual fulfillment of a happy marriage. We see her loved by her father, yet abandoned by her mother. In a strange twist of events, Rachel is placed in the same position of losing a child as her mother was. The loss gnaws at her and she strives to come to resolution in her old age. Other major influences on Rachel's life are Leilani, a wonderful character who brings a worldliness to the island in addition to a secret and the understanding native Haleola who becomes an adoptive aunt.

The novel is a not only the story of Rachel, but also of Hawaii and the historical events that surround its progression from kingdom to statehood. It is a novel of conflict of those who understood the disease and those who didn't, of those who practiced Christianity and those who remained steadfast in their belief in the Hawaiian pantheon. It was a wonderful and unforgettable read. Rachel's life and spirit will haunt the reader long after the last page is turned.