Review: Moloka'i by Alan Brennert (WOW!)

Thursday, October 7, 2010


Seven-year old Rachel Kalama is like any other girl living with her family in Honolulu. Her father is a merchant seaman who is away from home for months at a time. Her mother works hard to bring up four kids. Rachel and her older sister, Sarah, fight like typical siblings, until one fight turns ugly and Rachel returns home with minor injuries. That's when her mother notices a bleeding rash on her thigh, which Rachel could not feel. Rachel is proud that she isn't complaining (not even feeling) an injured spot in her body. But her mother is anxious and worried. She gives the injury a couple of weeks to heal, and when there's been no change, Rachel's parents dress her up in long skirts and shoes to cover the spots. Her mother visits a local doctor privately for help, and Rachel is barred from removing her shoes ever in public (much to Rachel's anger). Until one day, something happens in the school grounds in front of a large crowd that reveals to everyone what is wrong with her. She has leprosy.

Alan Brennert's Moloka'i is a brilliant read. Rachel Kalama is a protagonist anyone would root for. Mostly because she could be the girl next door. She could have been anyone from 19th-20th century Moloka'i. Alan Brennert didn't try to make her some sort of heroine, or keep her safe while everyone around her suffered. Her disease not only shattered her, but also her entire family in a rippling fashion. How does one cope with losing every single person that ever mattered? Over the years, Rachel meets so many people that even we come to love and pray for. And this motley cast of people are not just treated as faceless extras, but have very interesting back-stories and are molded into fully-fleshed characters by Brennert. They have their own place in the book and without overwhelming the reader get their story told too. In the end, I cried and hoped for every character in this book.

In addition to the tangible players of this book, Moloka'i has several other characters - leprosy, the island Moloka'i, and history itself. Through the book, we see how leprosy ravaged the people of Moloka'i, both directly and indirectly. Just like in any other community, Rachel makes friends with other patients, many of whom become her playmates in pranks, and has adult figures she respects - a Sister who remains her constant companion, an aunt who treats her like her own daughter, an uncle who loves her a lot. The only difference is that this whole coterie is surrounded by leprosy and thus there is a chance they could die any time. One day, Rachel is having the best time of her life with a person, and the next day, that person has passed away. It is one of life's mocking cruelties - to become so close to someone, and then watch that person being taken away. While some people took to brooding about their disease, most accepted it and became the better for what they were.

Set beginning in the 1890s and going all the way to middle of the twentieth century, this book captures so much of the history that happens during this period - and clearly, this period is one of the richest in terms of its history - two world wars, tons of innovations; in fact, the world in which the book starts and the world in which it ends are so different that it would make you wonder if you were still reading the same book. This history is as significant as the characters of the book, and yet Alan Brennert doesn't ramble about the important events that I've noticed in so many books and found digressing. You almost never notice the history, but rather you feel like you are part of the history itself. You feel the same amazement felt by the characters, almost as if you are watching it too.

When I started reading the book, I expected to come to hate the place called Moloka'i, because of all it stands for. On the other hand, I came to love the place. There is this bunch of people who were so set apart from the rest of humanity, and also didn't have any part in the innovations that were happening. The rest of the world was moving into the 20th century, while the residents of Moloka'i were still stuck in 19th century with no electricity and feeding on the same standard diet provided by the government for more than 20 years. Without being too wordy or stopping the story to talk about the place, the author slowly but surely builds Moloka'i as a significant character in the background. Moloka'i had a church, a school, a "sanctuary" for girls under the age of eighteen, proper houses for residents, and most importantly, in Moloka'i, nobody ran away from them or looked at them with disgust. But, on the other hand, this place received what people from other places didn't need anymore, as if indicating that these people have no worth and no place in society, which is how they were treated.
Class was held only three hours each day. The books were old and had DISCARD stamped in red ink on the inside front cover; the crayons were neither as plentiful nor as colorful as those provided at Fort Street School; and the classroom lacked even a globe of the world!

The initial part of this book was hard to read - not because of language or lack of intrigue - but because it was hard reading about a seven-year old girl (and other unluckier girls) forcibly separated from her parents by a disease she wasn't even old enough to comprehend, and sent to Moloka'i, from where no one apparently returns. Rachel's parents knew what Moloka'i meant, and they realized that they may never ever see her again. For victims of leprosy, Moloka'i is understood to be their grave even before they die. But for all the doom and gloom associated with this place, people in Moloka'i knew how to live. They partied, danced, had their own cozy homes, and made best with what they had. At times, I saw a civilization that was far more tolerant and cohesive than people elsewhere. They understood each other at a level other people didn't. While others shunned them as outcasts and looked at them with disgust, the victims gelled well with each other, even though the effects of the disease on each person varied hugely.

It should also be mentioned that so many characters in this book actually existed in reality, and yet this is not nonfiction. I wasn't aware of this at first but the afterword draws clear lines between what was real and what is fiction. Through the course of the book, I came to respect some of those real characters, and it was with a lot of pride that I read their back story. Alan Brennert gives those characters a tribute of the highest order by forever immortalizing them in print for us to read.


Check out this book @ GoodreadsBetterWorldBooksAmazonBarnes and Noble.

I received this book as a Secret Santa gift last year from a friend.


9 comments:

Marg said...

I have been meaning to read this book for the longest time! Thanks for the reminder.

Cat said...

Great review. I shall have to see if the library has this one.

Bibliophile By the Sea said...

YAY....I am so glad you enjoyed this book. I just loved it as well. It would make a great book club discussion book too.

Helen's Book Blog said...

What a great review! I hadn't even heard of this book but it sounds so interesting and informative without being a dry history book

Marce said...

Aths, you choose some great Deep stories. I'm not sure if I would get in the right mood for this one.

BTW - Creepers isn't available on Kindle yet :-(

bermudaonion said...

I don't think I've ever read a book about leprosy, so this sounds really interesting to me. I love the fact that a lot of the characters are based on real people.

Juju at Tales of Whimsy.com said...

Sounds fantastic.

How does the cover fit the story?

Katy F. said...

Wow! I haven't seen this one before but it sounds amazing. Great review!

Aths said...

Marg, you are welcome! Looking forward to what you think!

Cat, I hope you get to read it!

Diane, I agree - this is definitely a great discussion book!

Helen, Exactly - you should check it out, I think you will love it!

Marce, I would have sent you my copy of Creepers, sigh, but I already gave it to a friend. I hope you get it soon!

Kathy, I loved that aspect too - I was surprised at how many of them were real or almost-real.

Juju, hmm, that's a good question - I would say it's a Hawaiian girl, and Moloka'i is actually an island in Hawaii.

Katy, thanks!