Friday, February 13, 2009

Moloka'i, Alan Brennert

You know when you were in 7th grade biology class, and you got to the chapter on things like bacteria and other creepy crawlies that could get in your food or into your body? And remember how, every time you read about a new gross disease your body could contract, you were absolutely 100% certain you had symptoms of that disease and you were totally freaked out and sure your life was over? Was it just me? Tiny little neurotic 7th grade Sarah? Maybe.

Well, that's kind of what reading Moloka'i, by Alan Brennert, the story of a girl condemned to life on Hawaii's leper colony at the turn of the 20th century, was like. At least at first. I couldn't get a zit without poking at it and feeling relief that it was, indeed, painful to the touch and therefore was not some leperous lesion.

I knew very little about leprosy going into the book and learned quite about it about how it is contracted (it's not nearly as contagious as people thing and the hysteria around it reminded me much of how people initially responded to the idea of the HIV/AIDS epidemic) and who tends to get it (children between 5 and 15 years of age) and how it progresses (depends on the kind of leprosy you've got) and the history of it's treatment in the modern age (everything from witch-doctor brewed tea to western antibiotics), as well as the history of the disease in Hawaii. I remembered from reading James Michener's Hawaii that a leper colony existed at the turn of the 20th century (and did up until at least the 1980's) on the small island of Moloka'i, and was both horrified and fascinated, so when I saw Brennert's book, I jumped on the chance to read an entire book devoted to the subject.

Moloka'i is the story of Rachel Kalama, a young girl living in Oahu, the youngest daughter of a seaman and his wife. Rachel's spirit longs to join her father on his 8-9 month journeys out to sea and to mysterious and exotic foreign countries. Her family is close-knit and loving; husband and wife show affection and joke with each other and their children. Siblings love each other, but also rival each other for parents' attentions. Your typical, happy, family. Until one day, Rachel blossoms little red sores that are numb to the touch.

It isn't long before, at 7 years old, Rachel is whisked away from the clutches of her family (at the angry, jealous accusation of her older sister) and sent on the steamer Moloka'i, to the island of Moloka'i and the leper colony that has been established there.

The book follows her life on Moloka'i, with its heart-breaking losses, enduring hope and moments of small loving mercies. At times it feels like Brennert set out to fashion a new vision of Job, in the leprous body of a young Hawaiian girl in the 20th century. Rachel truly endures more heart-ache and loss than most characters I've encountered. I found myself becoming fiercely protective of her and angry at those who would do her harm or treat her as less of a human because of her disease. Brennert created such a compelling and sympathetic character in Rachel that I often found myself putting the book down, either out of sorrow or anger, until I could collect myself and move on with the story. Rachel's capacity for love and hope in the face of so many tragedies and such society-induced shame was inspiring.

The book is rich with characters who experience Moloka'i from a wide range of perspectives. Both the diseased and the "clean" live in the pages of this book and on the island of Moloka'i and through them, we get such a well-rounded view of what life was like for these people, it is hard not to become entirely wrapped up in the book.

Along with the lives of these individuals, the history of the time is chronicled as well; everything from the United States' take over of the islands, to Pearl Harbor, to the Japanese interment camps find their way into Rachel's story. That is my favorite thing about historical novels; having the drama of an individual's life placed against the backdrop of historical events, just as our unique life experiences unfold amongst the collective reality of our times.

The book is incredible and I was sad to see it end. It's a story that will stay with me for a long time.

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