Review: Moloka’i by Alan Brennert

Moloka’i tells a historically-based story about an island off of Oahu where Hawaiians with leprosy were forced to live in the late 1800s to mid 1900s.  As it’s told, leprosy (now called Hansen’s Disease) afflicted thousands of native Hawaiians after Americans and visitors from other countries began visiting the Hawaiian islands.

The story begins with Rachel, a five year old, who lives a blissfully happy life with her mother, sister and brothers on Oahu.  Her father is a merchant who spends most of his time sailing to other countries, but he always brings Rachel a special doll from each country he visits.  Rachel dreams of seeing the world.

Unfortunately, she contracts leprosy, and though her mother tries to hide the evidence of the disease, she is found out in a horrible way.  In a fight with her older sister Sarah, Sarah calls her a “leper”, loud enough for others to hear.  That’s enough to have Rachel examined, and the diagnosis is grim.

At this time, because no one on the island knows how leprosy is contracted or spread, Rachel is first forced to live in a hospital, with no real contact with her family or the outside world.  She is terrified by the others around her with leprosy, which unfortunately causes various body parts to become misshapen.

Even as she becomes used to this horrifying existence, she is then transported to the island of Moloka’i, where her family cannot visit.  The way Brennert writes about young Rachel, torn from everything she knows and forced to live in an institution surrounded by the dying, is agonizing and at times, very real.

Fortunately, Rachel’s life isn’t all horrible.  Her Uncle Pono and his female companion become “foster” parents to young Rachel and she makes many friends who become her family.  She is, for the most part, well cared for by nuns and doctors.  Her condition isn’t as severe as many, but she must watch those around her become debilitated and die.  Ultimately, even as the island becomes home, she is still a prisoner.

The backdrop of this story is the relationship of the United States to Hawaii, and the clash between native Hawaiian and Christian religion.  I expected more political background, but Brennert gives us only a little because the story is told through Rachel’s point of view, and she is very isolated on Moloka’i.

I loved the first part of the book, but unfortunately it weakened as it went on.  While the author clearly wanted to tell a factually accurate story that covered many years, the history actually got in the way of telling a good story.  We don’t need to see Rachel’s entire life; it just isn’t that interesting.  At some point it begins to feel like an unrelated list of events, particularly deaths, most of which aren’t that relevant to the story.  Instead of writing about a few really interesting parts of Rachel’s life, the author seems to feel the need to cover every part.

So I found the second half of the book pretty dull.  Rachel as a child is a really interesting character, and the history is absolutely interesting, especially information about how leprosy was treated and how the residents of this little island lived, and how major historical events like the death of Hawaii’s last king, or the bombing of Pearl Harbor, affected its residents.  But Brennert would have told a much better story if he’d focused on just a few things.

That said, this was a history I’m glad I learned about.  I love visiting Hawai’i, but I’d rather know about its history, even when dark and ugly, than just enjoy the sun on the beach.  I enjoyed reading about Hawaiian culture and legends.

I’m struggling with Sarah Vowell’s book about the history of Hawai’i, but I mean to go back to it.  Has anyone read it?  Your thoughts?  I love Sarah Vowell but this just didn’t grab me.  It’s so much easier for me to read about history through fiction.

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