“She realized now how wrong she’d been; the pali wasn’t a headstone and Kalaupapa wasn’t a grave. It was a community like any other, bound by ties deeper than most, and people here went to their deaths as people did anywhere: with great reluctance, dragging the messy jumble of their lives behind them.”
A beautiful, bittersweet novel about life, death, love, loss, family, and a dark smear in the history of the United States and humanity that so few know about. I don’t think I have ever cried so much over a book. I shed all sorts of tears: heartbreak, happiness, anger, relief.
Moloka’i follows the life of Rachel Kalama from her days as a carefree 5-year-old living in Honolulu, to her diagnosis with leprosy at age 7, to her life as an exiled leper on Moloka’i and all the love, loss, joys, and sorrows that come with it. Rachel’s life and the lives of all the people who come into and out of her life help paint a fuller picture of the experiences of those afflicted by Hansen’s disease in Hawaii. As Rachel grows up, she struggles to come to terms with her disease and the status it has given her: the inhabitants of Kalaupapa have all been arrested, and are treated like prisoners. She struggles with the loss of family that comes with social ostracization and a misguided notion that the diseased and their family are “unclean,” tainted not only by bacteria, but also by some moral illness. Moloka’i isn’t so much about the disease itself as it is about life in the face of disease and death, a notion of family and ‘ohana that transcends simple blood ties, and the transformation of Hawaii itself as it becomes a place that slowly sheds its culture and is overtaken by the United States and all the historical events that surround the turn of the nineteenth century.
Brennert manages to fit so many themes into his novel without it becoming pedantic or too long. He explores the disappearance and resilience of native Hawaiian culture in the face of incoming waves of Christian missionaries who view the indigenous traditions as pagan, hedonistic, and sinful. He touches upon not only the experiences of those afflicted with Hansen’s disease and exiled to Kalaupapa, but also the unafflicted people who spent their lives trying to care and cure them, as well as the tensions and struggles in the colonization of Hawaii and erasure of Hawaiian culture. He fits so much history into a story that feels individual and personal.
Moloka’i is incredibly well-crafted, compelling, and heartbreaking. A great, eye-opening read on an often-overlooked part of American and Hawaiian history.