Book Club Review and Blog by Cindy Bushey
Taken as a whole, history plays out on a grand scale with epic battles, significant victories, and massive losses. We idolize our heroes, setting them on pedestals. And yet, it seems there are always dark, shadowy patches of history that showcase equally important battles of the human spirit. Often these passages offer a greater insight into the resilience of humanity but are omitted from the history books written by the victors. It is a fortunate reader who finds an opportunity to explore one of these passages. Zion’s readers were lucky to open the pages of such an account as they read Moloka’i by Alan Brennert.
Although the characters are fictional, Mr. Brennert recounts the story of the leper colony on the Hawaiian island of Moloka’i. From our medical vantage point in 2015, it is hard to realize how little was known about leprosy, or Hansen’s disease, in the late 1890’s. In a familiar story, foreign visitors to the islands brought a laundry list of diseases to which the natives were highly susceptible, leprosy among them. Without knowing much about the disease which had a long incubation period and was actually hard to catch, it was thought that the only way to stop the spread was to isolate those with the sores and horrible disfigurements. The village of Kalaupapa on Moloka’i was deemed the place, and people were wrested from their families and basically deported there.
The author traces the story of Rachel Kalama, who developed leprosy at the age of 6 and depicts the anguish that tore apart her family and the trauma inflicted on the child. The enforced isolation of the lepers reminded many readers of the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. However, the lepers of Moloka’i built a community, developed relationships, found acceptance and love even while they struggled with their virtual imprisonment. Missionaries and doctors tried to help them with well-meaning discipline and experimental medicines, the U.S. government conducted medical research in its best cold-blooded fashion, and Rachel grew to adulthood and found a soul mate. She and Kenji married and had a child, only to immediately lose her for babies were taken from parents and sent back to other islands before the disease could find a foothold. Moloka’i is a story of loss – loss of freedom, loss of body parts to disease, loss of young friends, and finally loss of a spouse. As one reader said, it shows an egregious violation of human rights albeit done within the limits of the knowledge of that era. But it is also a story of survival, of grit and determination, and of the discovery of sulfa drugs that will reverse some of the effects of Hansen’s disease and eventually cure it.
Rachel leaves Moloka’i and searches for the remains of her family. If this novel ever strikes a false note, it is how easily Rachel comes from her isolated existence frozen in time into a modern urban Hawaii and immediately adapts to public transportation. She is able to track her daughter through her adoption papers, again more easily than would actually happen. However, these slight slips did not in any way detract from the emotional hold this story wove around its readers. All of Zion’s readers connected to it on emotional levels. One reader had seen lepers when traveling through Malaysia as a child. One had actually toured Kalaupapa and could imagine the fear and longing of the residents. Another could relate to the loss of a parent. The vivid descriptions of the islands, the rich character development traced over the course of almost 80 years, the gripping subject matter – all the ingredients for a first-rate novel were deftly arranged by Mr. Brennert. In addition to enjoying a remarkable saga, Zion’s readers also learned a great deal about the various forms of leprosy and the history of Hawaii. Eight different readers gave it a unanimous one thumb up – a great read for a snowy February.