I love historical fiction. Reading from this genre makes me feel like I’m back in school, but instead of memorizing names and dates I’m learning the most interesting parts of the past through a fictional narrative. For instance, did you know that people who were diagnosed with leprosy in the late 1800s to the early 1900s were essentially exiled to the Hawaiian island of Moloka’i? (And here all I knew about leprosy was that that Lazarus dude from the bible died from it.)
That’s the story Alan Brennert’s new book tells through the experiences of his fictional character Rachel Kalama. When Rachel is seven-years-old, her mother notices rosy patches on her skin. Even though her mother tries to hide it, Rachel is later discovered and forced out of her home, away from her mother, father, brothers and sister, and cast to the leprosy colony at Moloka’i. It’s here that she makes friends, falls in love, finds her faith and grows up—away from everything and everyone she once knew.
Suffice it to say, if you are looking for a happy, upbeat book, Moloka’i is not for you. Although there are many happy moments sprinkled throughout the story, it’s utterly heartbreaking, and a lot happens. Imagine being torn from your family at such a young age, losing your freedom and being forced to live among strangers in a far-away place. You can never leave, not unless you are suddenly cured; you’re trapped. And even though the people of the island are wonderful, it’s unnatural for humans to be tethered to one place forever.
The book was interesting from the very beginning, but after Rachel arrived on the island I didn’t feel very attached to the plot. The story lacked soul. I felt for Rachel and everything she was going through, but I didn’t feel particularly attached to her story. Instead, I just felt as if the author was going through the motions, placing her in situations but not making those moments come alive. It wasn’t until the second half that Brennert’s story finally picks up. Suddenly I was invested and my interest carried all the way through until the end of the book.
Despite learning so much about leprosy, better known as Hansen’s disease, this book takes you on a journey through history. During Rachel’s time on the island, major historical moments take place, including the invention of planes and movies, world wars, and even the overthrowing of Hawaii’s queen. All this change is taking place while Rachel and her friends on Moloka’i simply observe from afar. Get ready for some tears.
Some spoilers ahead
• Favorite quote: “Fear is good. In the right degree it prevents us from making fools of ourselves. But in the wrong measure it prevents us from fully living. Fear is our boon companion but never our master.”
• Rachel’s father was the sweetest man. I loved how he brought her back a doll from every place he visited. Very clever.
• I enjoyed the theological discussion from the nuns at Rachel’s school. I didn’t feel like it was particularly overdone, but rather addressed questions you know everyone would ask—and still ask—during difficult times: How can such awful things happen to such innocent people?
• Did anyone else wish for Sister Catherine to quit the convent and go live with her family? She was such a good person and deserved so much happiness. She cared so much for those young girls, I just wish she would have cared for herself, too.
• It was beyond touching how Rachel’s husband Kenji wouldn’t leave her behind when he is told he can finally leave the island. But doesn’t anyone else think he should have used his free pass to visit the outside world just once in his life? With the tragic events that follow, it breaks my heart to know that he never got to see outside of Moloka’i as an adult.
• Despite that, at least Rachel was awarded a somewhat happy ending. She finally got to travel and see the world. My heart is breaking all over again.