Wednesday, March 20, 2013
Moloka'i: Alan Brennert
You know how, when someone you respect proclaims the glory of a book, and you are compelled to immediately go out and find a copy? That's how I came across Moloka'i by Alan Brennert. It was my father who read the book after he received the recommendation from someone else...which seems to be the way with this author. I believe that word-of-mouth has garnered him a great amount of fame. His fourth publication, Moloka'i is about the fifth largest of the Hawaiian islands and the strange culture bred there in it's years as a leper colony.
Rachel is just seven years old when she is taken from her family because of wounds that aren't painful, and red splotches on her skin that won't heal. In the late 19th century, Hansen's Disease, or leprosy as it is more commonly known, was a death sentence. It was a misunderstood affliction that remained a mystery for nearly a hundred years; known as the flesh-eating disease, it condemned it's sufferers to physically painless disfigurement but endless emotional anguish. Spitfire Rachel is already more familiar with leprosy than she'd like, having already seen her uncle Pono shipped off the Moloka'i. When her turn comes, her sole comfort is knowing that uncle Pono will be waiting for her. What follows is an intimate exploration of what life on the island of Moloka'i was like during it's years as a leper colony. Rachel is housed in the school for girls, and then in the home that her uncle shared with his leper wife. While traversing the bureaucratic wilds of a Hawaiian island that has been left to die in the Pacific Ocean, Rachel comes of age and learns a great deal about love and the many ways it appears.
I found myself addicted to this story. Why? Am I secretly fascinated by leprosy? Do I like a good cathartic read? Does the rocky butte known as Moloka'i appeal to me? Maybe all of the above. Here's what I know for sure. I like Rachel. I like her from the very beginning, when she is just a little kid, disobeying her mom, arguing with her siblings, and cherishing the dolls her dad brings back to her from overseas. Rachel is not a complex character--she is actually very simple. She is just a little girl who is ripped away from everything she knows at a young age, and is forced to find good in the new world she finds herself in, or die slowly, miserable with her lot in life. It's not as if she is living in the lush green jungle of Maui or the white sandy beaches of Oahu. Moloka'i was chosen as the leper colony because it was considered undesirable land. Very little could grow on the mountain of rock, and the ocean meets the sand in only a few stretches. I wanted to imagine that Rachel was aging in a beautiful paradise, but the reality is that she was watching her friends die as she aged and became more disfigured. And yet, this isn't a sad story. In fact, it's sort of uplifting! It sounds impossible, but it turns out that Rachel's life serves a purpose and she touches so very many lives. Her resolve never fizzles, as she wakes every day determined to live. Brennert's book is a fictionalized account based on true events that should make any sane person feel at least a little sad at the way so many people were treated. Instead, he has written a story that exposes only a few of the horrors suffered by the afflicted, and turned it into a relatable story of inspiration. I can't help but admire him!