Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Summary: “Rachel Kalama, a spirited seven-year-old Hawaiian girl, dreams of visiting far-off lands like her father, a merchant seaman. Then one day a rose-colored mark appears on her skin, and those dreams are stolen from her. Taken from her home and family, Rachel is sent to Kalaupapa, the quarantined leprosy settlement on the island of Moloka’i. Here her life is supposed to end—but instead she discovers it is only just beginning” (Goodreads).
Moloka’i was a truly eye-opening novel. Prior to reading this, I had little knowledge of leprosy or of Moloka’i’s history as a leper colony. I have visited Moloka’i myself once, when I was very little, and the most I remember was a nasty boat ride there that caused me to throw-up the instant I got off the boat, and the contrary comfortable plane ride back to Maui. Hence, I clearly don’t remember any history I might have learned.
This book follows Rachel from childhood to late adulthood, exploring her life before she contracted leprosy, and thereafter. As aforementioned, I knew little of leprosy aside from the understanding that it causes skin to fall off, so this book taught me a lot about it, about the stigma it carried once, and the growth of a cure. Now, leprosy is highly treatable and carries much less of a stigma than it did back in the early twentieth century. I cannot possibly imagine having leprosy at this time, given how horribly people with the illness were treated and how they were separated from their families and thrown onto an island that few ever left.
Alan Brennert is a marvelous storyteller. I usually stray away from novels that cover such a large period of time, but it worked here, and in my opinion, was necessary. I never felt distant from Rachel, and I believe this style of writing worked because it enhanced my connection to the story and the character. By the end of the novel, I cried because I could so deeply feel her wants and needs. This is the mark of a good novel.
We meet many characters through the book, some that last only a few pages and others that grow through most of the novel. This worked a little less for me, because some of the transitions occurred so rapidly, I felt their lives were tossed aside. Perhaps, this was a technique used to express how often people died on Moloka’i, how their lives were so fleeting, and how the death became normal, but it seemed too brushed off for my taste. Though, with this symbolic understanding, I can’t say I would rate this lower. And as well, it didn’t distract too much from my reading experience. (And it’s also my only qualm).
It’s not too often I stray from Young Adult literature, but it’s books like these that remind me why stepping out of my comfort zone is a good thing. YA has its good parts, but I always appreciate the depth and strength of an adult novel, for it is usually a breath of fresh air from the tropes of YA.
I urge you to read this book. Not only does it delve into the lives of lepers a century ago, but it discusses the transformation of Hawaii into part of the United States and a tourist attraction. It adds a stronger understanding of the atrocity of colonization and the ripping away of the Hawaiian culture, as well as the bridges between the American and Hawaiian cultures within the people’s lives.
I am very grateful for reading this book, and saddened that it took me so long to pick it up off my shelf. And thank you to my mom, for telling me to read it after loving it herself.