Young Rachel Kalama, growing up in idyllic Honolulu in the 1890s, is part of a big, loving Hawaiian family, and dreams of seeing the far-off lands that her father, a merchant seaman, often visits. But at the age of seven, Rachel and her dreams are shattered by the discovery that she has leprosy. Forcibly removed from her family, she is sent to Kalaupapa, the isolated leper colony on the island of Moloka'i.
In her exile she finds a family of friends to replace the family she's lost: a native healer, Haleola, who becomes her adopted "auntie" and makes Rachel aware of the rich culture and mythology of her people; Sister Mary Catherine Voorhies, one of the Franciscan sisters who care for young girls at Kalaupapa; and the beautiful, worldly Leilani, who harbors a surprising secret. At Kalaupapa she also meets the man she will one day marry.
True to historical accounts, Moloka'i is the story of an extraordinary human drama, the full scope and pathos of which has never been told before in fiction. But Rachel's life, though shadowed by disease, isolation, and tragedy, is also one of joy, courage, and dignity. This is a story about life, not death; hope, not despair. It is not about the failings of flesh, but the strength of the human spirit.
Compellingly original in its conceit, Brennert's sweeping debut novel tracks the grim struggle of a Hawaiian woman who contracts leprosy as a child in Honolulu during the 1890s and is deported to the island of Moloka'i, where she grows to adulthood at the quarantined settlement of Kalaupapa. Rachel Kalama is the plucky, seven-year-old heroine whose family is devastated when first her uncle Pono and then she develop leprous sores and are quarantined with the disease. While Rachel's symptoms remain mild during her youth, she watches others her age dying from the disease in near total isolation from family and friends. Rachel finds happiness when she meets Kenji Utagawa, a fellow leprosy victim whose illness brings shame on his Japanese family. After a tender courtship, Rachel and Kenji marry and have a daughter, but the birth of their healthy baby brings as much grief as joy, when they must give her up for adoption to prevent infection. The couple cope with the loss of their daughter and settle into a productive working life until Kenji tries to stop a quarantined U.S. soldier from beating up his girlfriend and is tragically killed in the subsequent fight. The poignant concluding chapters portray Rachel's final years after sulfa drugs are discovered as a cure, leaving her free to abandon Moloka'i and seek out her family and daughter. Brennert's compassion makes Rachel a memorable character, and his smooth storytelling vividly brings early 20th-century Hawaii to life. Leprosy may seem a macabre subject, but Brennert transforms the material into a touching, lovely account of a woman's journey as she rises above the limitations of a devastating illness.
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I began to learn and care for the history of the one Hawaiian Island I have not been to. This was an amazing read.
Historical fiction at its best
Molokai is part love letter to the late 19th century in HI, part coming of age story, a story of the people infected with Hanson’s disease, and the stories of those who cared for them.
In simple yet elegant writing, the author conveys an exceptional range of human experiences, religious practices, and ways to be a family during a time when the world is going through immense change
This book was highly recommended to me by a dear friend, and I will encourage everyone I know read this novel that brings to live a specific time and place few realize existed. Kay’s favorite books.
Great book. Opened my eyes to what individuals diagnosed with Hansen's were subject to during this era.