Tuesday, August 14, 2012
By Alan Brennert
New York, St. Martin’s Griffin, 2003
389 p. Fiction
Moloka’i is a three-tiered novel. First of all, it is the story of Rachel, who as a young girl was sent to the island of Moloka’i in the Hawaiian Islands. She had contracted leprosy, to which apparently the native Hawaiians were particularly susceptible. The leper colony for Hawaii was at Kalaupapa, one of the most remote spots in the Hawaiian Islands. Separated from her family in the most heart-wrenching way, Rachel spends most of the rest of her life at Kalaupapa; she marries there, works there, dies there.
The second level of Moloka'i is the history of the islands of Hawaii, which begins when the American forces depose the King and Queen in Honolulu and ends just short of statehood. Father Damien began the leper colony in the 1870s, and now the area is a National Historical Park. The story of Rachel at the leper colony forms the background for the history—the death of Father Damien, US government rule, electricity, automobiles, airplanes, the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese internment.
The third level is the story of leprosy from the days that it was a scourge and a death sentence to the time it became a treatable disease brought into remission by modern drugs. The name of the disease was even changed to Hanson’s Disease. Although the symptoms seem to be similar, there is some debate as to whether the leprosy of the Bible is the same as what is called Hanson’s Disease now. It is interesting to see how Rachel’s disease is treated when little is known about the disease and then how it is treated when antibiotics become available. The situation is reminiscent of 30 years ago when AIDS first came on the scene.
At its core, Moloka'i is a story of societal pressures, of friendship and love, and especially a story of resilience. The nun, Sister Catherine, who becomes Rachel’s closest friend and a substitute for her family, sums up the theme of the book. She says: “I used to wonder, why did God give children leprosy? Now I believe God doesn’t give anyone leprosy. He gives us, if we choose to use it, the spirit to live with leprosy, and with the imminence of death. Because it is in our own mortality that we are most Divine.”
I really didn’t want to read about leprosy—about sores and lost fingers and death—but it was the book club’s choice for August. I did find out a lot and appreciated the lessons the book taught. I particularly appreciated how a community could be built out of nothing but a common disease. It made me want to know more about leprosy and Moloka’i. One reviewer has this to say about Moloka'i: “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.”
If I have any complaint about the book, it is that the history lessons are a bit heavy-handed. It is sort of like…”OK. Let me throw in a history lesson about Hawaii now.” When I look at pictures of the island, I see a paradise, and that is the irony of the book. These seriously ill and dying people were exiled on a spot which is now considered to be one of the beautiful spots on earth.
Here is a website that discusses the difference between Biblical leprosy and Hanson’s disease: http://christianthinktank.com/leprosy.html
This is the National Park Service Kalaupapa website and the history of the Kalaupapa settlement: http://www.nps.gov/kala/historyculture/history1.htm
Alan Brennert’s website: http://www.alanbrennert.com/