In 1891 six-year-old Rachel’s world seems to be ending when she is forced to leave her family due to a diagnosis of leprosy, now called Hansen’s Disease. Because Hawaiians were particularly susceptible to the disease, the government took drastic steps to contain it. Those infected were isolated from the rest of the community, first to a local hospital, and then to the island of Moloka’i. With the help of her uncle, his girlfriend, a nun from Bishop Home, and all the other friends who become her family, Rachel discovers a rich, fulfilling life. This story tells of the hardships these people endured and how they coped with obstacles that were actually fatal.
Rachel and her fellow captives on Moloka’i thrive despite the U.S. government’s insensitivity. At that time, no one knew how the disease was transmitted; although the government’s knee-jerk reaction certainly did stem its progress, it was at the expense of those infected. Brennert could have made this novel a tirade against an establishment that has systematically attempted to obliterate the indigenous people of the U.S. However, he instead focuses on the positives, showing the misery but also how it was overcome. His inclusion of traditional ceremonies, use of Hawaiian terminology, and research using oral histories and biographies transports the reader to that era. Cut off from the rest of the world, progress comes later to the island. Airplanes, motion pictures, and reports of world events eventually arrive, but news of Honolulu’s rapid growth, the internment camps of WWII, and the families they left behind does not.
Moloka’i is a bittersweet look at a topic that is rarely found in history books. Once you look past the disfiguring disease, you will find an uplifting story that proves that life is really what you make of it. Highly recommended.